Carolyn Hlus was a lecturer in English literature at the University of Alberta, Edmonton.
Florence McNeil’s eighth book of poetry, Barkerville follows in logical sequence from her 1982 collection, The Overlanders. Through the imaginative recreation of time and place, Barkerville, like The Overlanders, transforms an historical event, in both instances the 1862 Cariboo Gold Rush, into epic verse. Instead of focusing on the journey to the Cariboo and relating the trials of the gold-seekers, as she did in The Overlanders, McNeil focuses on the life of a particular town, Barkerville, which, like hundreds of similar communities, sprang up overnight in interior British Columbia during that era of unprecedented exploration and growth. Using the same narrative technique that she used in The Overlanders — thatis, of assuming the voice of participants in the event — McNeil establishes the authenticity of her subject matter.
Barkerville, in fact, relates the entire history of Barkerville — its birth, its hey-day, and its death. Perhaps prompted by a staged performance about the town’s history which is a daily summer tourist attraction in the present-day reconstructed Barkerville, McNeil begins the book with her interpretation of a picture of the Barkerville Dramatic Club, circa 1872, posing before the stage panels for their production of “Italian Corsair.” Having set the stage with this prologue for a dramatic production, McNeil begins her version of the town’s story. Leading the entourage across the stage is Billy Barker. An adventurer from Cornwall, Barker sinks a shaft deeper than any have before him into the rockbed in the Williams Creek area, strikes a prominent vein of gold and, suddenly, is the richest man on the creeks. Thus begins the steady flow of get-rich-quick artists to the place that comes to be known as Barkerville. There’s Martin, the conjurer; Peter Pullet, the editor; Dr. Chipp, the dentist; Mrs. Cameron, the hotelier; the Reverend Mr. Reynard, as well as the many people directly involved with mining: Bill Phinney, Joe King, Mr. Jones. Sometimes through their eyes, sometimes through the eyes of an omniscient narrator, McNeil voyages through time and back to the wild days when men were driven by the glitter of gold, and she delves beneath the surface appearance caught by the photographer and discovers the human strengths and weaknesses of the characters on her stage. They work and play with the rugged intensity of passing miners but, as well, in their own crude fashion, they create a community.
McNeil recreates the boom and decline of the community. Everyday events shape the backdrop for unusual happenings: the arrival of Laumeister’s camels, the celebration on the Queen’s birthday, the finding of a body “more rotten than /a coastal stump,” the hanging, and the Barkerville fire. The fire constitutes the collection’s epiphany. After the fire, the signs of anticipated prosperity give way to the signs of hoped-for survival. Gold finds become less frequent and, gradually, residents pack up and leave. The concluding poem describes the death in an “Old Man’s Home” in Victoria of Billy Barker, “penniless and crawling /with cancer...”
McNeil’s portrayal of the paradigm gold town is a masterpiece of character creation. By using clear images and seemingly accurate voices from the 1860s, she effectively rounds the flat characters displayed on the reproductions of photographs, interspersed throughout the text, by Frederick Dally, the pioneer Barkerville photographer who, as well, has a role in the text. Photographs, characters and anecdotes combine to achieve an exciting performance of drama, “Barkerville,” a performance deserving nothing less than a standing ovation.