To write good creative nonfiction is to read even better creative nonfiction. THE GOLDEN SPRUCE (John Vaillant, Vintage Canada, 2006) offers such a model for any aspiring writer, including myself with my own book OUT TO SEA.
Vaillant's book revolves around the survivalist Grant Hadwin in the forests of British Columbia. And like a tree, the story is rooted in twists and tangles of conflicting personalities, even delving deep into the questions of reality and fantasy. The subtitle of the book is aptly named: “A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed.”
The spruce in question looked like it was touched by King Midas himself, endowed with golden pines. It was a tree that came with different mythologies depending on whom you talked with: It was a miracle of nature endowed by the Gods to some, while to others, a "poster child” of all that was wrong with the logging industry.
To Hadwin, the tree was a “sickness.”
The book is an account of the life of the rugged outdoors-man, the tree, and the forces that swirl around the two. For the coastal tribe of the Haida, the tree was sacred. For the rugged loggers, it was just a job you worked around; for the eco-tourists, one more stop on their itinerary; for the scientist, it was something to be studied and examined down to its genetic level.
For the whistleblower of the likes of Hadwin, it was a “pet plant” of the academic and industrial elite to distract the public from the millions of trees already cut down from clear-cut logging practices—as if preserving this golden tree had given them the right to destroy the humdrum green forests that surrounded this wunderkind of a tree.
For the man Hadwin, he was also many things to many people: a madman, a prophet, a messenger, an estranged husband, a murderer, a father, a fugitive, a Hercules figure who defied nature, a man conflicted with his job as a logger and his mores of clear cutting of 1000-year-old virgin forests.
In the Chapter two epigraph, Vaillant evokes Winston Churchill who articulated the paradox when he remarked to his son in 1929: “Fancy cutting down all those beautiful trees...to make pulp for those bloody newspapers, and calling it civilization.” A sentiment that Hadwin would later take to heart after his own epiphany while alone in the forests.
The setting among these relationships and their interest in the tree are the Queen Charlotte Islands, a picture of rugged tree-leaden landscapes and unrelenting rain, wind, and swift-moving currents. Interspersed freely among the main narrative of Hadwin (his life, his love, his transformation, his disappearance, and his legend) are histories of the logging industry in British Columbia, the chainsaw, and other bits and pieces of anecdotes and digressions.
Like the Yakoun River near which the golden spruce grew, the book ebbs and flows in various directions with Vaillant as the river guide taking the reader to the exhilarating white waters of the crime and the RCMP’s search for Hadwin to the slow-moving flow of the expositions regarding history, science, environmental biology, geology, anthropology, and psychology. It is the effective intertwining of exposition and story that creative nonfiction writers aspire to.
Unlike other authors who may have had a book or two under their belts before their breakout book, John Vaillant soon blossomed with this his first nonfiction book The Golden Spruce (winner of the Governor General’s Award in 2005 no less) following a career in journalism and writing for such publications as the New Yorker, National Geographic, and the Atlantic. With such credits to his name, he was no seedling in the publishing world prior to writing The Golden Spruce.
Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts and adopted by Vancouver, Canada, Vaillant is now firmly rooted in the forefront of Canadian creative nonfiction, particularly with his slant in environmentalism.
In his second book The Tiger (winner of the prestigious Canadian Writer’s Trust Award of $60,000), a similar murder-in-nature motif is used to (in his own words) “shift the axis of our relationship to this planet from a vertical one of dominance and submission to a horizontal one of co-collaborators.”
Vaillant has mined out a prestigious mountain of research and writes it with verve and clarity. Take the high rigger, for example, who scales the tops of the trees to cut off the top spar and returns to earth as a man “entitled to a certain swagger; part stuntman, part matador, and absolutely indispensable, there was no doubt he was a card-carrying ‘cock of the woods.’” Vaillant takes the facts and weaves them into language that one reviewer called “spellbinding when conjuring up the world of the golden spruce.”
Therein lies his contribution to creative nonfiction—to own the research material as his own and spin it into gold that would even excite the old grump Rumpelstiltskin: scenes and personalities that shine brightly as if they were golden strands of straw interspersed between the darker brooding narrative of Hadwin’s life.
For example, when Vaillant described the Haida’s emergence into a new era, he used the cedar canoe as a vehicle to show us the tribe confronting the unknown future:
Traveling in these giant cedar canoes, the Haida would regularly paddle their home into, and out of, existence. With each collective paddle stroke they would have seen their islands sinking steadily into the sea while distant snow-covered peaks scrolled up before them like a new planet.
"Homeward" by Gordon Miller
By writing such surreal images based on painstaking research, we can safely conclude that John Vaillant has become Canada's “golden boy” of creative nonfiction.