Cranbrook’s Evah McKowan: ‘Janet of Kootenay’

Booknotes looks at the dawn of Kootenay literature

Janet of Kootenay

Janet of Kootenay

Mike Selby

“Veni. Vidi. Purchaci.” So opens a novel about Janet Kirk — a lone women who is braving the wilds of the frontier.

Writing to a friend back home, the “I came; I saw; I bought;” opening refers to Kirk’s purchase of 80 acres of unfarmed land. The rest of the story explores issues of isolation, land settlement, independence, survival, romance, and the myth of the untamed west; typical themes for frontier fiction.

The story of Janet Kirk however, is far from typical. In fact it is quite special. The parcel of land she buys is in Creston. The book’s author is from Cranbrook. The story is about our home.

‘Janet of Kootenay’ was first published in 1919, written by Evah McKowan. It is written is the epistolary style — a story told in a series of letters. ‘Dracula’ is perhaps the best known book written in this style. (This type of writing is no easy feat — Jane Austen was defeated by it).

Published by the firm of George H. Doran in New York, ‘Janet of Kootenay’ received glowing reviews in the ‘New York Times Book Review’, the ‘New York Tribune’, the ‘Atlanta Constitution’, and Philadelphia’s ‘Evening Public Ledger.’  Closer to home, the ‘Manitoba Free Press’ and the ‘Lethbridge Daily Herald’ strongly recommended it.

Evah McKowan was born in 1885, the eldest of four daughters. In 1900 her father moved the entire family from Carlisle, Ontario, to Cranbrook, hoping to take advantage of the new lumber boom. The teenage McKowan took a job teaching at Kimberley’s North Star Mining School until 1903, when she began to teach regularly in Cranbrook.  In July of 1908 she married Harry McKowan, one of the owners of Cranbrook Sash & Door. The happy couple soon had three daughters, which they raised in their home at 317-10th Avenue South (which still exists.)

Unfortunately any details about writing ‘Janet of Kootenay’ are lost to history. A study of McKowan conducted by S. Leigh Mathews for her Early Canadian Women Writers series also came up short of facts. Although Mathews interviewed all nine of McKowan’s grandchildren, none of them knew any details concerning the creation of ‘Janet.’ She was simply “Grandma,” and not a famous writer.

McKowan did write a series of articles about writing, and one gives a clue as to what may have gave her the writing bug. In a 1922 article for the ‘Manitoba Free Press’ she confessed that  “it is almost impossible to gaze at the mountains glowing like living coals in the sunset; to follow a mountain trial when the tamaracks and cottonwoods are touched with the yellow of autumn …without wanting — as my little girl once put it — to tell the world about it.”

The success of ‘Janet of Kootenay’ led to the follow up novel ‘Graydon of the Windermere,’ which appeared in 1920.  Similar to ‘Janet,’ this new book has a former Toronto parson beginning a new life in the majestic Windermere Valley.

Advertisements and flyers promised readers a third novel, but one never appeared. Reasons for this are also lost to history. McKowan was no slouch though. Not only did she take over Cranbrook Sash and Door after her husband died, but she ran the BC Chapter of the Canadian Authors Association, the Cranbrook Women’s Institute, the Cranbrook Girls in Training, the Canadian Society for the Control of Cancer is Cranbrook, and the Creston Valley Ladies’s Liberal Association. She also played numerous sports and was an avid painter.

She also may have written the great Canadian novel. ‘Janet of Kootenay’ is an awesome start to our very own literary heritage.

(Full disclosure: my great grandfather Charles Selby worked for McKowan’s husband at Cranbrook Sash and Door. Oddly, no one in my family ever mentioned Evah McKowan or her books. Of course there is also the real possibility that they did and I wasn’t listening. Although she passed away five years before I was born, I like to think her third book was called ‘Mike of Cranbrook.’)

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library