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Visiting author probes effects of B.C.'s '90s beetle mania in 'Cambium Blue'

Cambium Blue’s story is set in 1994 at the beginning of the bark beetle epidemic that ultimately destroyed millions of acres of pine forest in western North America. As industry dies with the trees, citizens must face existential questions about their community. Author Maureen Brownlee has two readings at Gibsons and District Public Library on June 10, with more appearances to follow in Powell River and Courtenay. 
A. Maureen Brownlee, author (credit Cynthia L Breden)
Cambium Blue author Maureen Browlee is visiting the Coast as part of a tour through Salish Sea communities.

An author whose new novel tracks the tribulations of a small B.C. town with a resource-centric economy has launched a tour of Salish Sea communities built on the forestry, fishing and mining sectors. 

Author Maureen Brownlee read from her novel Cambium Blue at the Sechelt Public Library on June 9. Two more readings are scheduled at the Gibsons and District Public Library on June 10, with additional appearances to follow in Powell River and Courtenay. 

Cambium Blue’s story is set in 1994 at the beginning of the bark beetle epidemic that ultimately destroyed millions of acres of pine forest in western North America. The only sawmill in a small lumber town is shuttered, forcing inhabitants into unemployment and uncertainty. Provincial government policy to replace timber harvesting with tourism sways the town council into wooing a resort developer. As conflicts mount, citizens face an existential question: who or what will define the character of their community? 

When the pine beetle epidemic began, Brownlee was working as a journalist at a weekly community newspaper. Over 10 years she served the paper in a variety of roles: publisher, editor, reporter, photographer, graphic designer and janitor. She reported first-hand on alternating attitudes to the beetle infestation — some experts believed it was possible to control the insects; others were less optimistic about stemming the invasion. 

“We’d been doing some stories about pine beetles,” she said. “We’d seen some of the red hillsides, and we had an idea that it was coming our way. When it did, it was interesting. Catastrophic, but also interesting.” 

Brownlee, who today lives on a farm in Valemount, mines her crowded curriculum vitae to give her tale gritty verisimilitude. She has also worked as an outfitter’s cook, trail guide, bookkeeper and employment counsellor.  

One of the story’s three protagonists, Maggie Evans, is a middle-aged woman struggling to sell her deceased husband’s newspaper, the beleaguered Chronicle. Maggie’s lamentations about eclectic font choices and the struggle to retain advertisers are grounded in the shifting culture of mid-1990s newspapering. 

“The newspaper is another thread in the novel,” Brownlee said. “Like the lumber industry, it’s under attack—or just about to be under attack. The Internet is coming for the newspapers. Although they don’t know that yet.” 

Brownlee conducted extensive research into the Spanish War to flesh out another key character, a veteran of that conflict who supplements his pension by hunting for marketable treasures in the local trash heap. In composing her first draft, Brownlee applied the lessons of her writing mentor, who herself had been schooled by Canadian authors W. O. Mitchell and Alistair MacLeod. 

“In the late 1970s, Mitchell was teaching something he called Mitchell’s Messy Method, or Freefall,” she said. “He sent his students off to a room and they just wrote continuously. He thought that by doing that they would find their voice and find their stories. So that’s how I learned to write. I arrived—through Freefall—at these characters, and the research took place in the process.” 

During an 11-city reading tour of her book throughout the Columbia River Basin, Brownlee discovered that controversies about urban development are not limited to historical fiction—or the province’s major population centres. 

“In Rossland we got into quite a spirited discussion about gentrification,” she said. “There’s a part in the book where a developer comes to a public meeting and there’s a back-and-forth between him and one of the longtime community members who’s not a fan. That’s what’s happening to us in peripheral [resource] towns: they’re being gentrified. The people who live in them and have lived in them for more than one generation find themselves unable to afford it.” 

Cambium Blue — the title comes from the life-giving layer on the periphery of a tree trunk — is Bronwlee’s second book. Her debut novel Loggers’ Daughters was released in 2013. 

Cambium Blue is available for sale online and at local booksellers, including Talewind Books in Sechelt. Brownlee appears at the Gibsons library at 6:30 p.m. on June 10.