Stories are invaluable teachers, says B.C. author Caroline Woodward, they have the ability to “give us whole worlds.” Old stories, too, are relevant artefacts that help us gain perspective on how much, or how little, progress we have made.
Fictional stories, the writer continues, are able to relate emotive experiences in a way that nonfiction books can’t. That is their strength, she explains, “[Fictional] stories allow us access to hopes and dreams, and working conditions and feeling sorry for horses in the cold — all the things that dry history books gloss over.”
I’m speaking with the author and part-time lighthouse keeper just after the re-publication of her book Alaska Highway Two-Step. First published in 1993, the unusual mystery novel is set in part along the legendary route and the release of its new edition coincides with the 75th anniversary of the Highway’s completion this year.
A road of expansive views, vast wilderness and remote truck stops sprinkled between our northern communities, the Alaska Highway is also littered with an entangled history of calamities and hard-won achievements. It is novelists like Woodward, who mix their creative art with this past, that help keep those stories alive.
“When you sit down to revise a book that’s older,” Woodward says about her novel’s republication, “you still have to connect with the juice of it, or else it’s just a dry exercise in copywriting.”
And while it’s been over 20 years since Alaska Highway Two-Step was released, updating it only required a few aesthetic nips and tucks. However, even a simple change can be significant.
In the new edition, Woodward renamed the ferry “Queen of the North” (the real-life BC Ferries boat that ran aground in 2006), the fictional “Queen of Hartley Bay,” after the town where many of the people who bravely set out to aid the sinking boat and its passengers came from. “The great joy of writing fiction is you get to right some wrongs,” she says of the revision, “and you get to honour some things you want to honour.”
Other edits include smoothing and refining the dialogue around the Site C Dam, which is not overtly named in the novel but integral to its plot. This contentious enterprise near her hometown in the Peace River region was another incentive to republish, Woodward notes. “I spend a lot of time writing letters to anyone who will listen, about how destructive this project is for all sorts of reasons — upstream and downstream,” she says.
It’s been more than two decades since the novel’s debut, but the dam is still in a loop of legal challenges and environmental reviews as it goes forward.
How stories are similar to, or in contrast with, our current situation is what keeps even the oldest stories relevant. In Alaska Highway Two-Step the Site C Dam scenario shows how conditions can stagnate. Two other plotlines, however, prove how fast change can happen. The tale of a free-spirited woman trapped by the circumstances of the age she was born in is told in parallel with one of her nieces, who is able to live a solo existence free of those social pressures just one generation later; and the timeline before and during the Alaska Highway’s construction offers a glimpse into that time and a Yukon of bygone days.
As seen in Woodward’s novel, perspectives from the past can help us understand the present. This is part of the magic of stories: to “help create empathy and understanding,” Woodward says.
Which is why keeping stories alive may, as she states, “make us better people.”
Caroline Woodward’s original novel Alaska Highway Two-Step is available at the Whitehorse Public Library. The latest edition was published in March by Lost Moose, the Yukon editorial imprint at Harbour Publishing. It’s available on Amazon or by special order at Mac’s Fireweed and Coles.
For more reading on the Alaska Highway’s intriguing history, Woodward suggests keeping an eye out for Canadian author Lawrence Hill’s upcoming work on the area.