Anthologist Jane Wilde at the Blue Heron Bookstore in Comox | George Le Masurier photo
Dancing in Gumboots: Comox Valley stories of cultural shift
You can see everything I love about the new book Dancing in Gumboots on its cover. Two young women sit on a log at a Crown Zellerbach logging site high above Comox Lake in the 1970s, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer from what we used to call stubbies and sharing a private joke.
We don’t get the exact punch line that brought smiles to Jeanine Maars and Gloria Simpson in that cover photograph by Jane Gilchrist. But the book’s 32 first-person stories of women who moved to the Comox Valley between 1970 and 1979 reveal the underlying reason for their happiness.
These were women feeling free and enjoying their lives in ways that previous generations could not.
Dancing in Gumboots is an anthology by Lou Allison and Jane Wilde. It follows the success of their first book, Gumboot Girls, featuring similar adventurous women who migrated from cities, the United States and Europe to settle on Haida Gwaii or the Prince Rupert area.
“The goal of the books was, first of all, to save our stories,” Wilde told Decafnation. “But they also document a generation that represents a big shift in culture.”
Written in the first-person and without much editing, these stories reflect on how a wave of women who settled in the Comox Valley broke down gender barriers as tree planters and fishers, embraced feminism and built lives based on self-confidence and self-reliance.
Many of the women speak with surprising candor about the most intimate parts of their lives, including divorce and sexual orientation, and the challenges of building their own homes. But there is a vivid sense of joy and fun that runs through each of the stories.
The Comox Valley was a small community back then. People knew almost everyone else. There was only one stoplight at Fifth and Cliffe. In 1971, just 13,000 people lived in Comox, Courtenay and Cumberland.
So when long-haired young women — and men — started arriving to scratch some internal itch to live on an island, work as a deckhand on a commercial fishing boat or to merely search for a taste of the pioneering lifestyle, it was noticeable.
And was hard to not notice them.
In their stories, these women speak about the early days of the Arts Alliance and the Renaissance Faire, about illegal midwifery, starting the Women’s Self-Help Network, the Youth Chance Society and the Comox Valley Transition Society. That was wildly progressive stuff for a little community still defined at the time by logging and fishing.
For those of us who arrived at the same time and know these women, reading their mini-memoirs will recall fond memories of our own. It takes us on a trip back through our own journeys.
But for those who have discovered the Comox Valley more recently as the surging knowledge-based urban center it is today, these stories provide not just historical references but a deeper sense of place. Knowing who it was that came before you and how they shaped your town’s culture, helps a person understand their own place in the continuum of community evolution.
Plus, Dancing with Gumboots is just fun to read. It’s kind of a guilty pleasure.
“These are flash memoirs,” Wilde said. “We told the writers not to agonize over their essays, just keep them fresh.”
Wilde and Allison created the whole book with only few in-person meetings. They sent five questions to potential contributors via email and asked them to respond in 1,000 to 1,500 words and to do it within two months. It was the same formula they used for their North Coast book.
“The first book was done almost as a lark,” Wilde said. “But then we sold 1,000 copies in the first month and our publisher said, hey, you’ve got something here.”
Wilde and Allison are part of the generation of women featured in their books. They both migrated to Haida Gwaii in the early 1970s and both wrote their own stories in Gumboot Girls, which has sold 8,000 copies to date.
Wilde arrive on the North Coast in 1976 and stayed until 1979. They she left for nursing school, but returned to Prince Rupert in 1981 to practice her new profession. For health reasons, she and her long-time partner, Richard, moved to the Comox Valley in 2016. He died in December.
“As I started to meet women in the Comox Valley, my eyes were opened to a completely different, yet similar migration of women from those I had known on the North Coast,” she said.
Wilde says no writers make any money from either of the books. All of the profits from the latest book go to the Comox Valley Transition Society, and to a similar nonprofit in Prince Rupert and Haida Gwaii from the first.
Wilde remains noncommittal about producing future anthologies, maybe because she’s accomplished what she set out to do in her first two books.
“It’s kind of the chicken soup of aging baby boomers. It’s stories about our generation,” she said. “They needed to be written down.”
NEXT READING: 2:15
JAN. 17 COURTENAY LIBRARY
AVAILABLE IN COMOX VALLEY
Blue Heron Books
1775 Comox Ave., Comox
Laughing Oyster Books
286 Fifth St., Courtenay
1071 Northwest Road
LIST OF AUTHORS
IN DANCING IN GUMBOOTS
Roberta DeDoming, Patti Willis, Peggy Kabush, Sandy Kennedy, Susan Holvenstot, Gerri Minaker. Sally Gellard ,Cara Tilston Lee Bjarnason, Devaki Johnson, Rosemary Vernon, Jackie Sandiford, Monika Terfloth, Susan Sandland, Sure Wheeler, Anne Davis, Nonie Caflisch, Denise Nadeau, Olive Scott, Phyllis Victory, Linda Rajotte, Brenda Dempsey, Gloria Simpson, Jeanine Maars, Marguerite Masson, Judy Norbury, Linda Safford, Ardith Chambers, Linda Deneer, Josephine Peyton, Gwyn Sproule and Lynda Glover
Both Dancing in Gumboots and Gumboot Girls were published by Caitlin Press, Halfmoon Bay, British Columbia
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I can’t say enough about this book. I read The Gumboots Girls and I enjoyed it and when I saw that you came out with Dancing in Gumboots I was very excited to own this book.
I came to Campbell River in the late 1970’s and when I moved here from Vancouver, B.C. on a dare , I never looked back. The love for Vancouver island grows deeper every year. It is a gift to live here.
This book is a treasure, and it is so good I didn’t want it to end. Thank you so much for letting me remember the past, and to share these women’s stories.
There were so many gathering places. The North Island, Sointula and the Ports up there are another, and the islands. So many came to reinvent ourselves and our lives in the heady late sixties and and early seventies. Thank you Jane and Caitlin Press for telling these stories.
NICE TO SEE THAT YOU’RE STILL AROUND. MANY MOONS HAVE PASSED SINCE THOSE CUMBERLAND DAYS. I LOVED WRITING THE STORY FOR DANCING IN GUMBOOTS; IT WAS SUCH FUN AND I LOVE BEING PART OF THIS GROUP OF WOMEN TOO. WHO WOULD HAVE GUESSED THAT OUR LIVES WOULD BE STORIES?
I’D LOVE TO READ STORIES OF THE MEN WHO LIVED IN AND AROUND THESE WOMEN TOO.
The 60’s and 70’s shook the earth in so many ways. Thanks for the nice article George. I must get the books mentioned isn’t he article.
Great to read about a lot of these women from ‘away’ as they say on that East coast island. I know or know of most of these women having lived in the Valley since the early ’60’s. Even though I was from here, I also took on some non-traditional work for women when I went commercial fishing in my twenties, but always came back to ski in the winter. Since I was involved in hiking, paddling and skiing I wasn’t on the same wavelength as these women at that time. I did get to know some of them when I moved to Merville in my thirties. It was always entertaining to understand how they managed their lives compared to the small-town women that I’d known growing up in Comox. The sixties were fun!
I’m sure there are more stories from the women of SE B.C. like those who moved to the Slocan Valley. There’s another opportunity for Jane!
Thanks for sharing. I saw a presentation on Gumboot Girls at the CV Writers Society and got a copy for my sister. She thoroughly enjoyed it. (she took the artist route rather than work-in-the-bush route.)