Author Yvonne Mearns Klan's recent book, The Old Red Shirt from New Star Books, is one of the most interesting collections of heritage ephemera for many a year.
As an amateur historian, Klan has combed the archives of B.C.'s pioneer past to collect gems of poetry and song. Over many decades, she has pored over such old newspapers as The British Columbian and the history magazine Westward Ho in gathering her frontier literature.
One of the poems, a washerwoman's lament, chides the man that brings her an old red shirt that was torn " and asked me to give it a stitch; but it was threadbare and sorely worn, which showed he was far from rich."
This poem gives the book its title and is one of the few pieces written by a woman, Rebecca Gibbs. Not that women were forgotten in the frontier. One Scottish poet, James Anderson, extols the virtues of the German lasses, the dancing girls of Barkerville, though their "hearts were hard as flint" since they loved the dollar more than the young men.
But for the most part, this is a history of men - those who came to farm or seek gold; those who arrived by boat around Cape Horn; those whose legends were likely larger than life, such as Walter Moberly, best known as the discoverer of C.P. Rail's Eagle Pass route through the Rockies.
Klan went to elementary school in Gibsons years ago and still has many close friends on the Coast, including poet Peter Trower who wrote the foreword to her book. She now makes her home in North Vancouver.
She was inspired to gather this collection when she considered how much of B.C.'s past we would never see again. Gone are the stagecoaches and paddlewheelers on the Fraser River; gone are the telegraph lines and prospectors' shanties.
"I looked for frontier poetry," she says, "not urban poems. Some couldn't possibly be published because they were so awful!"
What was life like for these pioneers? Was it just a huge grunt as one voyager described it: "Damn the journey, damn the track. Damn the distance there and back."
Or was it an adventure full of glittering promise? One thing becomes apparent. It was not shoot-outs or bear attacks that ended the lives of pioneers. Often, it was simple starvation. The two poems translated from Chinese are a highlight of the book. They give us a rare glimpse of the dreams of Chinese workers far from home.
When you buy this book - and you should - give it some time. Read each piece and the helpful background information and allow yourself time to think of those who trod on our turf so recently - just over 100 years ago. The Old Red Shirt is available in paperback for $16.