Recent History – 1999
Sept. 27, 1999
By Mark Nielsen, Daily News Staff
Rex Holmes grew up in a family that homesteaded in the Pouce Coupe area for 11 years.
It was a time when nothing was easy and little, if anything, was taken for granted thanks in part to the Great Depression. Indeed, life was so tough that they didn’t so much homestead as squat on homesteads that had been abandoned by the previous owner.
“We didn’t just always stay on the same homestead,” he said. “Mother had a rule: ‘If you’re going to be poor, do it where nobody could see you.’ So when things were getting really tough, we’d move off that homestead and farther back into the bush.”
But living off the land is something he would gladly do again. “Maybe things are more enjoyable when they’re harder to get,” he said.
Holmes never did return to the homestead. But he became a writer, and has gone on to capture some of those experiences in The Spruces. Published by Caitlin Press in Prince George, The Spruces is about a young couple, Kevin and Joanne, who move from Toronto to the Peace and settle on a homestead in the Cutbank area near Dawson Creek during the Dirty ‘30s.
They’re full of optimism and romance and painfully lacking in any practical knowledge about living off the land. About the only thing they do right is to arrive in the spring, so they have a whole summer to get ready for the winter.
They also have a bit of luck in that the first person they meet is Ed Reed, a colourful, salt-of-the-earth local who takes the two under his wing.
Impatient to pursue their dream, they file a claim on a homestead, sight unseen, after being told there’s already a home on it. It turns out that the site is known as The Spruces because it’s located in an “evergreen swamp” and that the home is little more than a run-down shack with a leaky roof.
What follows is a series of trials and tribulations, but what Kevin and Joanne lack in know-how, they make up for in heart. After losing their garden to a flood, seeing their well cave in, grappling with starvation, and, in the instance of Joanne, a severe case of the winter blues, it seems that all they have left is each other.
But that’s fine by these two as the hardships they face together only deepens their already passionate love for each other.
Holmes suspects that many people are drawn to the land by the romance, only to be sobered up by the harsh realities that come with homesteading. But he insists that the romance never really dies.
“Maybe it comes back to them in another form,” he said. “Because there is something romantic about it.”
More of a storyteller than a novelist, Holmes readily admits that he simply dropped his characters off at the train station and took it from there.
“I suppose a good writer plans a book before he writes it,” he said. “But I just listened to whatever was going on in my head.”
Holmes knew that he wanted to become a writer when he was growing up on the homestead and taking school by correspondence. His brother had to write an essay about a walk into the woods.
But his brother wasn’t interested and talked Holmes into writing the essay for him.
“So I did and by God, we got a rave notice back from the teacher saying you should make this your life’s work,” he said. “So it worked out all right because he got the praise but I got the message.”
Holmes maintains that The Spruces is far from biographical, and that the characters and most of the story came from his own imagination.
But there is no denying that the youth he spent homesteading in the Peace has had a great influence. After all, his inspiration for the story originates in those experiences, and it was in his boyhood where his drive to become a writer began.
Rex Holmes will be at the Pouce Coupe Library for a book-signing this evening, 7 p.m. start.