December 30, 2012

An Okanagan History: The Diaries of Roger John Sugars, 1911-1919

This lovely book chronicles eight years in the life of Roger John Sugars, who lived with his parents at Fintry on the west side of Okanagan Lake through his teenage years. Sugars was only 14 years old in 1911, and yet the diaries are beautifully written with the concision of a mature naturalist. Rogers had an apparently insatiable curiosity about trees, birds, animals, weather, the lake, watersheds, and geology. He had access to books which he seemed to know backwards and forwards, and even sent updates to the authors sometimes, e.g. about a certain conifer he found growing outside of the range mentioned in the book. This guy had a amazing brain for numbers, measurements, details of all kinds, and a great ear for the dialects of the various colourful characters who populated Fintry at the time.

The diaries chronicle a time in our valley of which I'd until now only heard bits and pieces. We spent some time at Fintry this past summer and it's now a park, with some residences just outside the park to the south. But in 1911, there wasn't even a road to Fintry - from anywhere. The remnant of the old Hudson's Bay Trail passed the Sugars ranch, but the trail, which had carried furs during the fur trade era and prospectors during the Gold Rush, was little used by then. All supplies and communication with the outside world came by steamers like the SS Sicamous, now a lakeside museum in Penticton.

Roger's father John had been a scholar with a Master's degree in the classics and a good job in England, but he married an adventurous woman who convinced him to pull up stakes and move to Canada. At Fintry John made a living at whatever he could - roadbuilding, fishing, hunting, working in the orchards, lumbering - and Roger worked alongside him.

 In 1917 Roger joined the armed forces as a forester and was shipped to Europe for the last two years of the war. When he returned, he moved to Salmon Arm, farmed there for a while, then eventually became an insurance salesman.

One of the most interesting things in the book for me is the foreword by his daughter, in which she says:

According to his diaries, he was a fine woodsman, a hunter, a horseman and a builder. He was capable of inventing useful articles and doing a hard day's manual labour. He brought none of those skills to his married life. His ability to run a farm and a store were left in Salmon Arm. His army experiences were never discussed with us, but were described in his diary. We knew our father as a top notch salesman, a perfect gentleman with impeccable dress, a well-liked friend to many with a marvelous sense of humour, a soft hearted dad and a total loss at fixing anything whatever in our home.

This really freaks me out! These two pictures don't match at all. The diaries depict an absolutely intrepid, fearless young man, very strong and capable and infinitely curious about nature. His daughter's description of him doesn't seem to be about the same person. The war stands between these two pictures, and maybe that's a clue to this strange dissonance.

In any case, I loved the diaries - thanks to Jeremy who ferreted this book out of the library. It's well written and sheds a lot of light on the early years of the 19th century in the Okanagan. I learned, for example, that the wide open meadow on the West Side that we see from Kelowna and call "Stocks Meadow" was settled in the early 1900s by the Stocks family. This is good to know and their story will add a whole new dimension for me now when I look at that meadow.

One local reviewer said the Sugars diaries are the "Sunshine Sketches of the Okanagan." I wouldn't have thought of them exactly that way, but they are really good, and deserve the sharp eye of a good editor (me!) to make this edition even better.

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