Although Caroline Woodward’s latest book, Light Years: A Memoir of a Modern Lighthouse Keeper, was written for adults, these structures and the landscapes they inhabit have a universal power, which is what brought the author to Palsson Elementary School on April 29.
Woodward, whose book was nominated for the Bill Duthie Booksellers’ Choice Award at this year’s BC Book Awards (ultimately it lost out to Susan Musgrave’s A Taste of Haida Gwaii: Food Gathering and Feasting at the Edge of the World), spoke to the school about her many experiences as a lighthouse keeper, which she accompanied with a slideshow of pictures taken by her husband, photographer Jeff George.
“Having visuals for the K to three age group is important,” said Woodward, who had already visited nine other schools as part of her book tour.
Woodward started by reading to students one of her earlier works, a picture book called Singing Away the Dark, which was published in 2010. Woodward has written for a wide range of age groups, and said her choice of audience all comes down to content.
“Different material suits different genres or age groups,” she said. “I’m working on a series more from [early] in my life because your memories are so vivid and pure… You see the world in a clear way that we tend to muddy as we get older.”
The presentation at Palsson featured an explanation of Woodward’s and her husband’s tasks as lighthouse keepers, the risks and dangers the coastline can present to ships and paddlers and a list of the flora and fauna they encounter on a daily basis.
The idea for the book was born out of a piece of fiction told from the perspective of a lighthouse keeper. It was one paragraph in the story taken directly from Woodward’s life that caught the attention of an editor.
“I was encouraged to write more and voila, the right publisher read it and asked if I had a book with more stories like that. So I wrote it,” she said.
Eight years ago, Woodward and her husband were seeking an adventure when the opportunity to work in lighthouses presented itself. Woodward said her childhood on a rural homestead in the Peace River region had prepared her for the isolated life at a lighthouse. She also saw it as an opportunity to focus more on her writing — not that she had so much free time!
“Many people are quite astounded by the variety of the tasks we perform, from daily sea water samples, twice-daily climate reports, and all manner of assistance to the public: boaters, hikers, surfers, float planes, people out on the water or in the coastal wilderness with medical and other emergencies,” she said.
Light Years shares the perspective of a modern lighthouse keeper, and does not delve into the history or mechanics of lighthouses.
“Those readers who want technical information should read winch engine manuals,” she said. “Some members of the public want romantic notions of lighthouse life reinforced, [such as] lighthouse life and working conditions set in the 1930s or earlier.”
Although Woodward has worked at a variety of lighthouses along the B.C. coast, she and her husband have been primarily based on Lennard Island, off the west coast of Vancouver Island near Tofino. She said spending time outdoors every day — “[observing] the state of the trees, the inter-tidal pools, the caves and channels, the buildings, the birds, the sea mammals, the ocean itself” — helps to stave off monotony and constantly keep her imagination engaged.
“I find inspiration in saving asparagus seeds and having them germinate in the greenhouse for the first time ever. I enjoy being able to identify migrating birds and to know the right names for all the wild and domestic plants on the island,” she said, adding the internet and remote library service through the Vancouver Island Regional Library have also been very important.
“It is a challenge on Foggy Day #8 but it makes me dig deep and write.”
Woodward said she hopes the children at Palsson Elementary see that anyone can become a writer, you don’t have to be from a big city.
“I came from a farming place of 300 people,” she said. “We all have stories and they’re all valid and we need to express them. I hope that kids from Lake Cowichan and Youbou and places like that really get that.”