Cruise and Griffiths had plenty of models for their thick novel, Vancouver, and all by one writer: James Michener. Michener was the pioneer of the “sweeping saga” sub-sub-genre of historical fiction, and Cruise and Griffiths have followed closely in his steps. The model is simple: step forward in time, starting at some suitably dim point in the ancient past, to the present day.
Vancouver starts, not in the Pacific Northwest of British Columbia, but somewhere farther north 15,000 years before the present. Like Michener (and, incidentally, like Ayn Rand), Cruise and Griffiths subscribe to the “great man” theory of history: progress, advance and change are made by unique individuals who rise above circumstance to do great things. The great man who first came south to the present location of the beautiful city on the coast of British Columbia, they imagine, was a fellow named Manto. Manto traveled through an ice-free corridor. Never mind that the ice-free corridor probably never existed, and that the most likely route to the peopling of North America was by coastal island-hoppers: Manto’s story, like all the stories in this novel, is exciting.
All the stories in this novel are, as well, in many ways fairly formulaic. The great man (or occasionally woman), starting from a position of loss, conquers nature, culture and circumstance in order to change history, to act as a pivot for things to come. And he (or she) gets the girl (or boy) along the way. To call the linked stories that comprise Vancouver formulaic, though, is not to disparage the book: formulas exist because they work, and because they’re entertaining. And Vancouver is nothing if not entertaining.
The link between the stories is a set of jade beads, brought by Manto from his homeland (presumably from somewhere in Siberia or farther south, though Cruise and Griffith’s geography is vague). The jade beads appear generation after generation, connecting each character with those who have come before. After 700-some pages, the weight of the linkages become somewhat ponderous: Cruise and Griffiths have set themselves a difficult task, and in the conclusion things get a little contrived.
In its series of set-piece bio-pics, the novel covers all the major players of Vancouver’s history. The Indians, of course, came first. Then there were the European explorers, and Juan de Fuca gets his moment in the sun. From the earliest days of the actual city, the Chinese have been major players. Various gold rushes figure prominently, as does the real estate business. The section that picks up Vancouver in the 1960s features the stock market and, curiously, makes no mention of draft dodgers (the famous science fiction writer, William Gibson, was one such American who made his way to Vancouver in the 1960s). The novel comes full circle, in a sense, by ending in 2003 with the story of Ellie Nesbutt, a young Indian woman who discovers something “unbelievably beautiful”: “We are a great people.... Some of us have just forgotten.”
Vancouver has been unfairly criticized for not really painting much of a picture of the actual city. That wasn’t the authors’ intent: it’s a saga of colonization, not a portrait. And although in many ways imperfect, Vancouver a page-turner that will surely please anyone in love with our quiet neighbor to the north.