Book By Cathy Converse, Reviewed by Ted Ross
Against the Current: The Remarkable Life of Agnes Deans Cameron, by Cathy Converse, Touchwood Editions, 2018, 296pp., footnotes, bibliography, index, illus., $27.34 hardcover, $9.99 Kindle, ISBN 978-1-77151-270-1
Born in Victoria in 1863, Agnes Deans Cameron had earned her teaching certificate by age sixteen. She went on to spark change in the teaching profession. She was the first female high school teacher and the first woman to be a school principal in Victoria and the Province of British Columbia. Cameron was later a noted writer, published in journals in Canada, the USA, and the United Kingdom. She travelled extensively throughout western Canada. Her travels took her far north, making her the first non-Indigenous woman to reach the Beaufort Sea.
In this biography Cathy Converse, through writings and other records, traces the story of this exceptional lady. We are taken on Cameron's life journey in the volume's fifteen chapters. Her father and mother, Duncan and Jessie, came to Victoria in 1860 so Duncan could search for gold. Agnes's growth as a teacher is documented. Converse recounts her move to Chicago and her writing career. Travels in Canada, eventually to the far north, offer thrilling passages. The tragedy of her death is told in the final chapter.
The story is well-told, holding the reader's interest, making one anxious to get to the next aspect. The story has a natural flow that is pleasant to read. Your reviewer read it twice and enjoyed each trip through the tale.
The author foreshadows the future path Cameron would follow saying, "Those first few steps up the entryway to Angela College (Mount St Angela) opened a door for Cameron that would forever change her life. She was ambitious and hard-working but could never have envisioned that she would come to be highly thought of across the country."
Converse relates, "At the beginning of July 1891, Cameron was moved to Victoria High School, making her the first woman in the province to teach in a high school. She was to teach in the third division at a salary of ninety dollars per month, ten dollars more than she had been earning at the Boy's School and twenty more than at the Girl's School. In comparison, the highest salary for permanent staff was a hundred dollars per month while the lowest was fifty dollars." Cameron was advancing in her teaching work in Victoria.
Ever a person of curiosity and interest in learning, we are told, "... the topic that captured people's attention was the opening of the World's Fair in Chicago.... After the closure of school for the summer of 1893 she packed her bags and set off by train to Chicago. The Canadian Pacific Railway was advertising a trip from Victoria to Chicago in eighty-three hours, with round-trip fare of fifty dollars and five cents. She took with her a camera, which had been a trusty companion on many past adventures and would continue to be on those yet to come, and several notebooks to record her experiences."
In September 1894 Cameron moved to the new South Park School where she would be principal, the first woman in the province to hold such a position. She continued to excel in her profession, and was extremely popular with her students. She worked there until 1905. Her reasons for leaving that position are well-told by the author; a long and contorted tale it is.
The author goes on to say, "Vanderhoof [Herbert Vanderhoof, the secretary of the Western Canadian Immigration Association] offered her a job [in 1906] working for the WCIA. It was the right opportunity at a time in her life when she needed one, and Vanderhoof was delighted to have such an august writer on his payroll." When the association moved its headquarters to Chicago, Cameron moved to that city. We read, "Chicago was an exciting and vibrant city, full of opportunity, much suited to her own vitality and energy. Without much trouble, she found a place to live in the Woodland area on the south side of the city." It was her new home. She had left her place of birth.
Converse gives a thorough account of a voyage made into Canada's far north during six months in 1908. It was an incredible undertaking which took Agnes and her cousin to the Arctic Ocean via the Mackenzie River, the first non-Indigenous women to reach that ocean. There are several photographs from the trip included in the volume.
"During Canada's 150th anniversary in 2017, Agnes Deans Cameron was recognized among the 150 most outstanding British Columbians in the history of the province. It is a well-deserved honour for a woman who spent her life going against the current," states Converse's Preface.
As mentioned already, this book is a wonderful read. It draws you along following Cameron's conquests and conflicts as a teacher, writer and traveller. A fascinating biography of a Victoria-born celebrity, it's of interest to all.
Against the Current is available from local booksellers and on-line from Amazon Books.