The Hope in Leaving: A Memoir
By Barbara Williams. Seven Stories, 240 pp, hardcover
British Columbia is a land unknown even to most of its inhabitants. Because of its size and geography, most of us will only ever see a fraction of our home province. Literature is supposed to help us at least imagine the roads not taken, to shorten the mental distance between Vancouver and Vanderhoof, Surrey and Sicamous.
The Hope in Leaving, by Barbara Williams, is the type of book that bridges the conceptual divides between rural and urban, past and present, helping us better understand this vast province. A compelling memoir, it reads like a novel that just happens to convey some history of many of the obscure towns, villages, and camps in B.C. where generations of workers have toiled in dangerous isolation to build the fortunes of others.
Williams, now a successful, Genie-nominated actress living in Southern California, grew up with an itinerant labourer father. His temperament was as volatile as his employment. Through a series of vignettes, Williams recounts how she coped with the instability and the oddities of small-town, working-class life.
The book begins with the haunting dream Williams had on the day she planned to leave B.C. From there, the narrative alternates between memories of her rough-and-tumble childhood and the day—at age 24, when she had finally decided to pursue a career in theatre in Toronto—when her troubled brother Randy committed suicide.
Daringly for a memoir, she uses a lot of imagined dialogue to fill in the back story of her parents and grandparents. Like a brutally frank love letter, Williams is unsparing in describing her family. Despite her mother’s resilience, it was a difficult and, to say the least, atypical childhood.
One anecdote stands out as a kind of summary of the narrative. One day as a young kid, Barbara greets her father at the dock on Harrison Lake, thinking he’s bringing her a promised new TV from Chilliwack. He shows up empty-handed, and when the little girl gets mad her father reminds her she’s never learned to swim. Then he gruffly picks her up and throws her off the dock; she thrashes around dangerously before scrambling to shore.
The Hope in Leaving is literary nonfiction with its sleeves rolled up. Williams, a first-time author, has clearly put in the work at rehearsals. The result is an essential addition to our understanding and appreciation of B.C.