Book Review: Ruffles on My Longjohns, by Isobel Edwards

Here’s a guest post by Sandra Doran of Campbell River, BC, sharing a favourite coastal history book from the past century.

I listened to my mother’s stories of growing up in the town of Ocean Falls and her and her friends’ expeditions into the surrounding hills and valleys. I wondered about the homesteaders who settled in the valley to the east and was delighted to find, at a second hand book sale, Isobel Edwards’ book, Ruffles on My Longjohns, where she talks about her experiences living in the Bella Coola valley.

Bella Coola Valley

Bella Coola Valley

When Isobel and her husband, Earle, set out from Oregon in early September 1932 to spend the winter helping Earle’s brother with the trapping, she had no idea the valley would be their home for almost fifty years. There weren’t many men living along the river in those days, even fewer women, and her early years in Victoria hadn’t prepared her for life in the bush. Earle had chosen to make the trek in from the Interior rather than go by boat and they had to transport all their belongings by a hastily built raft down the river and by horse on the trails.

Isobel’s matter of fact way of telling a story coupled with a sense of humour shows both the challenges faced and the sense of satisfaction in overcoming them.

Isobel’s descriptions show us the beauty and solitude of Atnarko and Lonesome Lake, the snow line making its way down the mountain side, the river rising and spilling over the fields. We get to know the dour men who live in the valley and the way they cope with their loneliness and isolation, the “Indians”, whose territory it is, who are regular visitors as they travel along the rivers and streams. We learn about the animals, domestic and wild, that are integral to the settlers’ existence and about how fishing supplements their farming income giving them the cash to buy staples. When Isobel goes out with Earle on the little sailing gillnetter they are towed to the grounds by BC Packers. Before they leave she realizes she is the only woman in fishing garb; the others on the dock are all in dresses and down to see the men off. She soon realizes why they don’t go fishing.

This firsthand account is full of such tales. This book is a delight to read as it brings to life a time along the rivers between Tatla Lake and the coast before the road was pushed through in 1955.

Thanks to Sandra Doran for this review!