Sisters of the Spruce

Written by Leslie Shimotakahara
Review by Fiona Alison

Sisters of the Spruce depicts the coming-of-age of 14-year-old tomboy Khya, second of three daughters of Sannosuke (Sam) Terada, who is hired to organize a logging camp at British Columbia’s Masset Inlet in 1918. The Buckley Bay site, upon the family’s arrival, consists of some barely habitable cabins, a group of Chinese, Japanese, and Indigenous loggers, and a steam donkey. The imminent need is a mill, which Sam sets the loggers to building.

When the white workers arrive, their leader, known as the Captain, seduces Khya’s 16-year-old sister, Izumi, resulting in heartbreak for the family. After irreconcilable differences break out between the ethnic groups, the Captain takes his workers south, leaving Izzy to mourn her loss. When she is sent to the mainland, Khyra is determined to find the Captain and demand he rescue her. Daisy, a young prostitute who feels a dull resignation towards her life, finds a means of escape with Khyra, and the two set off together in the direction of Thurston Harbour. Finding the Captain proves difficult despite the girls’ pluck and determination, and they soon find themselves running from the law.

Shimotakahara’s deeply moving novel takes place on the Queen Charlotte archipelago (Haida Gwaii), amidst the magnificent Sitka Spruce forests, trees strong enough to use to build fighter planes during the war, part of an ancient forested wilderness, homeland to the Haida. Kyha and Daisy first meet in the cave-like root system of a huge Sitka, the tree becoming a narrative symbol of hope and strength. The novel unfolds with organic fluidity, each event triggering another along Khya and Daisy’s route, as they bear witness to much tragedy. A map of Khya’s journey would be a welcome addition to this poignant story of friendship and love, family loyalty and the strength of the human spirit.