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San Juan Islands, Washington State, United States
A society formed in 2009 for the purpose of collecting, preserving, celebrating, and disseminating the maritime history of the San Juan Islands and northern Puget Sound area. Check this log for tales from out-of-print publications as well as from members and friends. There are circa 500, often long entries, on a broad range of maritime topics; there are search aids at the bottom of the log. Please ask for permission to use any photo posted on this site. Thank you.

17 September 2014

❖ BOOK REVIEW ❖ THE CURVE OF TIME


One of the most visited posts on this Log is an abridged biography of M. Wylie 'Capi' Blanchet by author Edith Iglauer Daly, with permission from the publisher, Harbour Publishing. Link to post

Today we are updated by Allison Hart Lengyel with a review of the audio version of Blanchet's The Curve of Time, published by Post Hypnotic Press. This is Lengyel's fourth review for Saltwater People Historical Society; book reviews are easily accessed by viewing the search labels at the bottom of the Log.


I’m just a wild sea gypsy
Born of the wind spray
Restless of all that would hold me
Bidding me come and stay.

Safe in my heart I kept my dreams
And laughed the hard years through
Now before your eyes I bring them out
Softly uncover and spread them to view. 

-M. Wylie Blanchet

Wylie Blanchet turned many actual summers into a narrative of one apparent long season spent motoring about the Canadian Pacific Gulf Islands with five children, and sometimes a dog, in the family’s 25’ cedar cruiser. She and her husband had bought the boat together sometime after they came west from Toronto to British Columbia in 1921. But he went out on a solo trip one day in 1927 and disappeared; the boat was found bobbing off Knapp Island, without a captain.  It was not without a captain for long, as Blanchet surprised her eastern relations by choosing both to keep the boat and to remain in BC, home-schooling her children during the year in the little house they’d bought on Curteis Point, near Sidney on Vancouver Island, and spending June to October free and independent, exploring the inland sea’s island- and inlet-strewn waters. 

To pull off this feat of self-reliance, Blanchet had to be an able diagnostician of marine mechanical and electrical problems, ready to improvise with what was at hand or to make do, while mindful of the weather, the currents, the winds, and safe spots to anchor. A boat of that size—the Caprice’s beam was only 6’ 1/2’’—couldn’t hold enough food and water for six people for five months, so the family learned the locations of reliable freshwater waterfalls and streams and sources and seasons for forage food (huckleberries, thimble berries, trout, salmon, clams, crabs, apples). In the 1930s and 1940s, when the family’s travels took place, there were a few isolated outposts, points of civilization, where mail and replacement parts could be forwarded; fuel, matches, batteries, and coffee purchased. Blanchet also administered the family’s first aid and protected them all from black bears, cougars, and a few shady human characters met along the way. Most of the people the family encountered were friendly, harmless recluses. And although it’s hard to imagine now, for the most part there were no marinas, no game wardens, and few evident rules about catch limits or private property. 
The book Blanchet wrote in 1961 is now available in audio format, narrated by voice actor Heather Henderson, with a forward by Timothy Egan. Henderson does a good job of conveying Blanchet’s no-nonsense demeanor. As captain of her little boat and crew (a role that earned her the lifelong nickname “Capi”)—and often the only adult around for many miles—Blanchet had to be unflappable and accomplished in multiple practical skills. Yet lucky for her family—and for the audience of her story—she had a philosophical, poetic side, intensely curious about the natural world and full of insights linking this water world of dense trees and fog with the greater world of literature and ideas. 

My only criticism of the audio book—and this is a small one—is that Henderson lacks any sort of Canadian accent. Blanchet, born in 1891 in Lachine, Québec, surely would have had one. Henderson’s characterization of the children’s voices is also perhaps a bit unrealistic--the way someone who had never spent summers on a boat with small children might imagine them. [Full disclosure: this reviewer has three school-age children and a boat.] On the plus side, Henderson’s narrative is easy to understand, with careful elocution and unambiguous phrasing.

The title of the book comes from the writing of Belgian Maurice Maeterlinck, who compared time to a curve, from the apex of which one can see the past, the present, and the future. Blanchet had Maeterlinck aboard, as well as a copy of George Vancouver’s travel diary from his 18th-century voyages in the area. As the Blanchet family traveled about in apparent aimless wandering, spending long days swimming, drying their freshly washed clothes on the rocks, gathering berries and hiking, motoring down inlets and weathering storms, they were actually also following the  stops made by Vancouver and noting his observations along the way, visiting Indian villages and logging camps, noting the indigenous plants and animals, and learning the skills of navigation. 

Thanks to the motor car, Maeterlinck wrote in 1904, it has become possible for people to absorb “in one day, as many sights, as much landscape and sky, as would formerly have been granted to us in a whole lifetime” (Maeterlinck, “In an Automobile,” 1904). In similar fashion, touring the waters of the Gulf Islands in a motor boat, even a 25’ gas-powered cruiser, opened up a wide world of experience to Blanchet and her family and allowed them to become deeply acquainted with a place formerly comprehended at the pace of dugout canoes, sail power, and the occasional steamship.

“When was that we had watched them? Yesterday? A hundred years ago? Or just somewhere on that Curve of Time? Farther and farther into that Past we slipped. Down winding tortuous byways—strewn with reefs, fringed with kelp. Now and then, out of pity for our propeller, we poled our way through the cool, green shallows—slipping over the pointed groups of great starfish, all purple and red and blue; turning aside the rock cod swimming with the lazy tails; making the minnows wheel and dart in among the sea grapes. In other stretches herons disputed our right-of-way with raucous cries, and bald-headed eagles stared silently from their dead tree perches. Once a mink shrieked and dropped his fish to flee, but turned to scream and defy us. Perhaps, as Peter suggested, he was a mother one. We turned into more open water, flanked with bigger islands, higher hills. ‘Mummy! Mummy! A whale!’ shouted Jan, and almost directly ahead of us a grey whale blew and dived. ‘Two whales! Two whales!’ shrieked the whole crew, as a great black killer whale rose in hot pursuit, his spar fin shining in the sun. He smacked the water with his great flanged tail and dived after his prey—both heading directly our way. We were safe behind a reef before they rose again.” (Blanchet, The Curve of Time, p.75-76)

Thanks to the audio version of Blanchet’s classic, The Curve of Time, we can now listen in on those long-ago summers, experiencing as Maeterlinck said, the “landscape and sky” of a whole lifetime, at the speed of a motor boat and our automobile.

The Curve of Time, M. Wylie Blanchet
Unabridged, 7 hours, 24 minutes
2014 Post Hypnotic Press, Canada

1 comment:

  1. One of my favorite reads. Ms. Blanchet's style envelopes you totally. Great experience for her children.

    ReplyDelete

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