Vibrant 'Vancouver' tells a city's history through immigrant, native eyes

"Vancouver" is an epic novel in the James Michener tradition: lengthy in size at 749 pages, spanning almost 16,000 years and featuring a host of characters. First Nations people called the "Kahnamut" (a made-up name), Chinese immigrants, German prospectors, Sikh military defectors, Scottish fur traders, even penny-stock promoters all strut their hour upon the grand Vancouver stage.

An ambitious undertaking, "Vancouver" (HarperCollins, $29.95) is broken into 12 stories, short novellas if you will, each titled with the names of protagonists such as Gistula or Soon Chong. These main characters are sometimes connected by bloodline, by association or by "green tears" (smooth beads of stone handed down from generation to generation). The novel is framed by two different forms of storytelling, beginning with a creation story told by Tall Man during the Ice Age and ending with a present-day movie shoot starring a "corporate" Indian in Vancouver's Stanley Park.

Canadian authors David Cruise and Alison Griffiths, a husband-and-wife team, researched and wrote "Vancouver" in a brisk three years. They have produced six best-selling nonfiction books in Canada, ranging from adventurous historical dramas to investigative exposés. "Vancouver" is their first sojourn into fiction.

As gargantuan as this novel purports to be, the real question is: Will it interest non-Canadians? And despite the fact that this is written by two well-known authors in Canada, do we in the States give a Mountie's horsetail?

In a word, yes, and I'll tell you why.

Vancouver and the American West Coast have a common history: native Indian roots, gold rushes, transcontinental railroads, the influx of immigrants, clashes with tribes, the conquest of nature. And the novel is not just limited to the circumference of Vancouver, but spills over into California, Washington and Alaska, as well as England, Germany, China and others. And when anti-American sentiment or local "color" comes through, it becomes all the more interesting.

And if you think this book sounds pedantic, think again. Cruise and Griffiths can write stories with dirt-clad vigor and emotional depth. Although you can learn plenty of history from this novel, the authors manage to telescope character and scene effectively, transporting the reader like a twig down the Fraser River.

Take the story of Gistula. She gets her fingers chopped off by her raging father, keeper of the sacred green tears, as she attempts to enter his canoe. Pregnant with the chief's seed, pawned off as a potlatch gift, Gistula is tragically left to drown. She later wakes upon a distant shore to find a gift from her father: green tears. She gives birth to a new nation of people, the Kahnamut, in the land later known as Vancouver.

Another hero is Warburton Pike, who takes the stage 1,600 years later. Inspired by a real person with the same name, Pike is a gentleman immigrant from Aldershot, England, who voyages to Vancouver and eventually amasses a fortune. He goes to sweat lodges with local tribes and discovers a strange calling : to collect Indian children taken as slaves by the whites and return them to their original tribes.

Fast forward to the present-day story of Ellie Nesbut, a distant descendant of the Kahnamut, who is trapped in urban squalor. She takes a job as an extra in a feature film starring a "corporate" Indian. An earthquake stops the movie shoot, and out pop the green tears in a carefully crafted box. The legacy is now in her hands, and an endowment created by Warburton Pike (a foundation that awards Indians full scholarships) may empower her to go to college and, perhaps, reclaim Indian ownership of Stanley Park.

Overall, the story of Vancouver is many stories, or many lives, layered to produce a satisfying complexity. To their credit, Cruise and Griffiths create an anti-pastoral and three-dimensional exploration of the Indian and immigrant experience. I quarreled a bit with the fantastic and ironic finale, where an earthquake in Stanley Park opens up an important symbol in the novel. But then again, this is a work of fiction and a grand climax is in order. Keep this on your nightstand for a time. You'll never look at Vancouver, or the Northwest for that matter, quite the same way again.

Authors appearance

David Cruise and Alison Griffiths will read from "Vancouver" at 7 p.m. Thursday, University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-634-3400); and 6:30 p.m. next Friday, Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333).