Tofino author Frank Harper and his new book 'Journeys'
a review by Bill Morrison, Tofino
In the early 1970's Frank Harper left his life in the university and washed up on the shores of Clayoquot Sound looking to "drop out and to drop in: to find a simple place to live, to find a community and self-sufficiency and adventure." Well I don't know about the dropping out part, but he sure as hell dropped in, and, as a playwright, author, editor, actor and party-host, came to occupy a position at the centre of Tofino's cultural life. The 23 stories collected here convince us how successful he has been at accomplishing his initial goal.
Some of these 'Journeys' I had previously enjoyed (or been annoyed by) as they appeared in various incarnations of The Sound. They are even better now. They are crisper and, arranged in loose chronological order, read as an extended love letter to Clayoquot Sound and its residents. From his perch at the base of Catface (and from unpredictable vantage points in town), Frank has chronicled the stories of waves, people, birds, spirits and others passing through. The five new stories moved me the most; perhaps because I realized how much I had missed this voice and how eagerly I'd devoured his earlier writing. Two of them bookend these short stories and give coherence to a bigger story. It is an extraordinary achievement to gather these tales together and weave a consistent thread which holds them together so well. While his wonder at the beauty of our natural world comes through on every page, it is the incisive portraits of his friends and neighbours that really jump out. Those we know are easily recognized and those we don't, we wish we did.
Frank gives us hints of his literary influences with references to Ram Dass, Casteneda and Frodo (and readers of a certain age will spot the handed-down hb pencil of Ken Kesey too). His rebellious nature extends to that-page-in-books-that-has-the-fine-print-before-the-book-starts where even the isbn number and bar code get a jab. But only a fool would mistake these stories for hippie ramblings. Frank hesitates neither to mock new-age trappings nor take down former heroes of the 60's.
Do not think, however, that this is an effortless read. There is an occasional jarring moment: I had a hard time following Frank through the mud with the chickens and I'm pretty sure it was Paul McCartney who wrote 'Blackbird'. A more important warning is that this book should be taken in moderation. This is heady stuff. As Frank's powerful and evocative writing carries us from existential quest to tragedy to rollicking adventure, it is easy to feel caught in a tidal rapid, when these journeys should instead provide opportunity for reflective and meandering exploration. Few readers will be able to summon the discipline to put the book down when they should.
Frank is no stranger to unspeakable tragedy, but is brave enough to speak of it. Thankfully, he is no stranger to comedy either and is generous enough to share that with us too. The spirit of each story is remarkably and consistently reflected in the rich illustrations by Joanna Streetly. Joanna's drawings shift from playful to despairing, but their meaning is never in doubt. The book's cover is gorgeous--except, of course, for the, um, barcode thing.
If you love this place, you'll like this book. Frank may have left the academy, but he has never stopped teaching us who we are and how we can create our own culture and sense of identity. He has delighted us in the past with stories of others (including Fred Tibbs and Cougar Annie) and now gives us, in one beautiful little package, part of his own story.
p.s. Frank doesn't like the word "tourist". He likes to use the expression "touring people". He recounts how, on his first day in town, he informs Pat McLorie, "Well, I'm not really a tourist." Sorry, Frank, we're all tourists - though few have traveled as elegantly and eloquently as you.
Bill Morrison is a dilettante who lives in Ucluelet