Where in Canada: Dancing on Bowen Island

July 7, 2016 by Joan Haggerty

Bowen Island, the setting of Joan Haggerty’s historical fiction novel, The Dancehall Years, is one of the southern Gulf Islands in British Columbia. Now mainly a residential island—many Bowen Islanders commute to the city—from the 1920’s until the 1960’s it was a picnic and recreational destination for thousands of mainlanders.

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What:

The Dancehall Years (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2016)

Who:

Joan Haggerty is the author of Please, Miss, Can I Play God?, Daughters of the Moon, and The Invitation which was nominated for the Governor General’s Award in 1994. Born in Vancouver, she has lived in England, Spain, New York City and Roberts Creek and taught high school for many years.

Where in Canada:

Bowen Island, the setting of Joan Haggerty’s historical fiction novel, The Dancehall Years, is one of the southern Gulf Islands in British Columbia. Now mainly a residential island—many Bowen Islanders commute to the city—from the 1920’s until the 1960’s it was a picnic and recreational destination for thousands of mainlanders. The Bowen Estate, run by the Union Steamships Company, sponsored huge picnics:

The Longshoremen, Woodwards and Eatons all came to Bowen for their annual summer day’s outing. In the summer of 1941, over 100,00 people visited the resort.

The famous octagonal dancehall above the wharf featured a horsehair lined dance floor and a moonlight cruise trip on the Lady Alexandra to and from downtown Vancouver. All through the war, soldiers on leave headed west to lotus land for a summer evening by the sea. Either they returned to The Continent after the dance or stayed in one of the dozens of small cottages surrounding The Snug Cove area.

Dancers wandered to Sandy Beach or to the end of the Point past the cottage of the novel’s young protagonist, Gwen Killam. To Gwen, tucked away in the attic of her family’s cabin, the dancehall was a giant music box on the hill. It’s from this pavilion that the stories in the novel spin.

The dancehall is Bowen Island with its medley of tides that rise and fall below the building. Over the years and generations, it stages the loves and deaths, arrivals and disappearances of the characters in such a way that they might be dancing still.

In fact, the dancehall was torn down in the early sixties along with the hotel and most of the cottages. In the novel, the building still stands, rotating above the wharf.  It’s the dancers that are rotating of course—there’s always a dosey-doe or an allemande left to exact—but, to Gwen,  the whole building swings to the summer music of the day, a Benny Goodman clarinet solo or a Glen Miller swing saxophone.

Bowen Island is also the fictional home of the Yoshito family, Shinsuke and Noriko and their son, Takumi. Takumi is Gwen’s swimming teacher and his parents are gardeners devoted to the Bowen Inn flower beds. As a result of the terrible internments during WW II, the Yoshitos lose their house which then becomes almost another character as it changes hands throughout the 60’s and 70’s.

When present day Bowen Islanders heard that, in the novel, the dancehall still stands, they were pleased. Good, they said. It can be our community centre. We need one.

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Thank you to Mona Fertig at Mother Tongue for connecting us with Joan, and to Joan Haggerty for sharing her inspiration with us. If you love reading about different places across Canada, read our past Where in Canada posts here.


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