In various interviews, Grant Lawrence has been asked why he didn’t write a book about music. As a founding member of the Vancouver punk band The Smugglers and a music journalist on CBC radio, Grant is known for his musical knowledge and insights, so the question is not out of place. And there is music in the book he has written. Each chapter title is also the name of a song by a Canadian indie artist or band, and a playlist of these songs may be accessed on CBC Radio 3’s website, to accompany one’s reading. But the book isn’t about music–not really, even though it is always in the background. The book is about another of Grant’s passions: the outdoors, specifically the wilderness of British Columbia past Lund, BC, where his family owns a cabin in a place with the ominous moniker of Desolation Sound.
The Lawrence family first purchased a little plot of land in the self-described “coastal wilderness” of the Desolation Sound Marine Park in the 1970s, and their first visit there revealed a scene that was “beyond the end of the road: it was the backwoods, the boondocks, a far-flung place where there were no roads, no cars, and very few people” (page 18). Lawrence is a consummate storyteller, and his tendency to hyperbole makes the reader believe that the place he is describing is aptly named. The setting is desolate and primitive, it’s true, but that doesn’t mean the writing is. Adventures in Solitude is an ironic title because the book is largely about Lawrence’s interactions with other people–the various hermits, hippies and other misfits who inhabit their own little corners of Desolation Sound and who become his neighbours, mentors, and friends.
The book outlines the development of this piece of BC wilderness at the same time as it describes Grant’s own life and his relationship to the place. As a gawky, geeky kid he was at first apprehensive at the prospect of being dragged out to the middle of nowhere by his outdoorsy father, but before long fishing, hiking and boating with the locals become rites of his childhood. As he grows older, Lawrence rejects the traditional vacation rituals of his parents, choosing instead as a rebellious adolescent to stay home and host the largest house party his neighbourhood had ever seen, and then travel the world as a singer in a punk-rock band. Eventually, however, the adult Lawrence grows nostalgic for the scenery and characters of his childhood retreat, and develops a relationship of his own with Desolation Sound. Grant’s version of the place relates various anecdotes involving colourful neighbourhood personalities, from the “leftover hippies” who invite the unsuspecting Lawrence family to the nudist potluck of the book’s subtitle, to the quirky hermit-philosopher Russell Letawsky, who becomes an important mentor and role model to the author.
These stories are entertaining and Grant knows how to spin a yarn, but sometimes these anecdotes seem a little disjunct. Bits of BC history are related back-to-back with descriptions of present-day cabin-building and well-digging, sometimes to jarring effect. Of course, the parallel constructs of Grant’s personal development and that of Desolation Sound itself serve as a narrative thread throughout, but sometimes the humorous and historical asides seem tangential, as if they have been strung onto the main story like flies on the thinnest of fishing lines. There is also the question of authenticity–or, to be less provocative, the concern that some of the historical references have been embellished here and there, in the interest of creating a better story.
One instance of this practice stands out as glaringly obvious. On page 152, in the chapter entitled “Going Bush,” Lawrence recounts the tale of Alex Johnson, a Desolation Sound woodsman who, after succumbing to the backwoods paranoia and craziness that is apparently a hazard of spending long periods of time in a place called Desolation Sound, murdered his friend Ralph D’Angio before shooting himself. Lawrence goes so far as to reproduce in his book the actual newspaper article from the Dec. 17, 1921 edition of the Vancouver Province that documents this incident, while on the same page recounting his own version. As might be expected, the details in each case are a little different. The newspaper story does admittedly possess the slightly melodramatic flavour of its time, with hyperbolic sentences like “It was a gruesome sight that greeted Constable Hadley and his posse who had set out to capture the madman” designed to catch and hold the reader’s eye. But overall the article is brief and states the facts of the case, as any good piece of reporting should.
Grant’s account, however, although it could not possibly be first-hand, is decidedly more fleshed-out. He describes Constable Hadley and his posse’s discovery of Alex Johnson in vivid detail:
From behind the safety of a giant tree trunk, Hadley called out to Johnson to surrender. There was no smoke coming from the chimney and the only sound the posse could hear coming from the cabin was a dog’s mournful howl. They slowly crept forward, guns drawn at the ready. Still not hearing anything but the bawling dog, Hadley made a dash for the cabin, pinning himself against the outside log wall between the front door and the window. With one eye he gingerly peeked inside and saw the feet of a man sprawled on the floor. Calling his posse forward, they broke down the barricaded door and crowded into the dark shack, guns drawn. When their eyes adjusted to the light, the locals in the posse identified the man on the floor as Alex Johnson, his sad dog standing sentinel over his dead body. (pages 152-153)
While this account is undoubtedly entertaining to read and lends an action-movie flair to the story, the specificity of the details imply a level of familiarity with the situation that Lawrence cannot possibly have. Any opportunity for eye-witness interviews or other firsthand research of a ninety-year-old crime has also long past, which makes one wonder just how Lawrence came up with such a picturesque tale. Was the newspaper article just a starting point for the author’s imagination? At what point did this non-fiction account drop its prefix? This embellished scenario (and the curious choice to reproduce the very newspaper article that essentially outs Lawrence’s creative license) makes the reader wonder what other supposed “true tales” have been reworked in the interest of better book sales.
These ethical questions aside, the book is undeniably entertaining. Part memoir, part travelogue, part long-form anecdote, Adventures in Solitude is a light read that will make you laugh in places and might even bring a sentimental tear to your eye. When Grant Lawrence was shopping the book around to publishers, he was told that it would probably have little or no market outside of British Columbia itself. It has sold well there, but Grant’s radio presence and visibility in indie music circles have given the book proverbial “legs,” and sales across the country have been impressive. It may be a generalization to say that Canadians love stories about their country–its geography, its quirky characters and their pioneering spirit–but it’s a generalization that’s easy to make in this case. Another one is that this book is full of the things that Canadians like, regardless of their locations within the country, and if the author messes with the facts a little here and there, well…isn’t that just what we want in a good storyteller? Adventures in Solitude is a book of stories told with obvious pride in both this country and its people, and as often-too-modest Canadians, we can always use more of that.