Memoir brilliantly captures real life

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March 6, 2013

Human Happiness
by Brian Fawcett
Thomas Allen publishers, 288 pages (paperback), $24.95

Reviewed by Norbert Ruebsaat

In his 2011 memoir, Human Happiness, Brian Fawcett puts the story of his parents, Hartley Fawcett and Rita Surry, at the centre of the action. It takes place in Prince George, in the middle of British Columbia at the edge of the northern resource-rich frontier in a time when local cultures and regional economies had not yet been bulldozed away by transnational corporations. We’re in the post Second World War “Golden Age” of North American progress, prosperity and dreams of perpetual happiness that begins in 1945 and ends in the late 1960s. Rita and Hartley raise a family, create “a Business Empire” (as Hartley, a self-made-man of his time who likes to speak in capital letters puts it) and capture “The Good Life,” a condition no longer available to post-war boomers and Xers who might, says our author, “lead a but never the good life.”

Hartley’s in the soft-drink bottling, meat-packing and milk-delivery businesses. Rita is, as were most women back then, a housewife who devotes tender and intelligent time to her four children. She offsets the loneliness of being at home in a small testosterone-driven resource extraction town, where her husband’s at work all day and on weekends golfs with his buddies, by starting a women’s group with other local mothers. When it becomes apparent that Hartley’s a great salesman but bad accountant, she adds keeping the company books to her duties.

Hartley’s neglectful and self absorbed: when Rita contracts cancer and needs to go to Vancouver for treatment, he doesn’t accompany her; it becomes clear that their marriage is troubled, sometimes dysfunctional, but held together by a shared dedication to everyday common-sense living and no false hopes about the nature of happiness. Son Brian defines this happiness as “something glimpsed in flight,” that requires “an ability to live with ambiguity and tolerate a certain degree of physical humour,” a state of being he contrasts with the permanent compulsory happiness proffered by consumer culture and advertising.

When, in the mid 1960s, city-based corporations begin to descend on northern B.C., business-suited executives walk into Hartley’s office and announce that if he doesn’t sell his ice cream operation their consortium will dump product into his marketplace below his cost until he is bankrupt. A&W, Dairy Queen and Macdonald’s and their ilk make similar attacks on local stores and eateries. Timber multinationals, backed by the B.C. government, force local logging operations out of business to the extent that, by 1972, 600 locally owned mills and many more portable “gypo outfits” have been replaced by eight supermills and two pulp mills. Hartley, who’s thrown enough city suits out of his office to realize that he “can’t beat progress,” decides, in 1968, to sell his business and moves with Rita to the Okanagan, where he lives happily for his remaining thirty years.

Human Happiness is the best memoir I’ve read about the BC Interior during a crucial period of its history. I know of no other accounts that put personal, family, social, and economic history together so well that I understand how daily lives, family relationships, local politics and economics work together to create a unique culture. And the bonus here is that Fawcett takes the next step, which is to write a memoir not only about life but also about an idea. Happiness stands at the centre of his parents’ story: while giving us intimate news about their lives and dreams and doings, he gives us also a philosophical investigation of a key North American, perhaps universal, real-life value.


Norbert Ruebsaat has published in The Vancouver Sun, The Globe and Mail, Literary Canada Review, Geist Magazine, Vancouver Review and Dooney’s Café.

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