RECOUNTING THE FLOOD FROM LOCAL PERSPECTIVES
Taylor Lambert is one of those genuine Canadian literary figures who remains at-large and on the horizon. Last year, that horizon filled to the brim with the raging flood of the Bow River, as it spilled and snaked through East Village developments, Kensington communities, Chinatown thoroughfares and Bowness backyards, and on and on, overflowing above the High River stop signs. The Bow did not stop, but neither did people in Southern Alberta. They rose, literally and figuratively, to the very top and proved themselves, almost to the last man, woman and child, that community is number one.
Characterful, and a charm to the last crack of his wit, Lambert looked on at the flood from his Toronto hotel after a bout of book signings, as he wrapped up a tour following the release of his second book, Leaving Moose Jaw. “Funny story, I wasn’t even in Calgary. I was on a national tour to support my previous book in Toronto. I woke up in Toronto, as the flood happened,” Lambert recounts, with a slight bashfulness. “My apartment was up on a hill and my family was safe. I was watching news reports, and there was nothing I could do.”
Like most, he expresses an initial powerlessness before the livid waters, with an honesty derived, characteristically, from his self-reflective, laconic prose. From a fiction writer bugged by trials as a drunkard youth in Montreal in Time of Growth, to a travel memoirist with an itchy footpath through India, Lambert has arrived back home, to chronicle one of the most devastating natural disasters in Canadian history.
With a keen, journalistic eye, trained in the ways of literary perception, Lambert found most news coverage on the flood to be sorely incomplete. The people who are often least regarded during crucial times often have the most important, critical stories to tell. Such was the case in Southern Alberta, with regard to the ways in which First Nations people and the homeless survived, coped and overcame their struggles during and in the wake of the flood.
“Siksika First Nation is kind of removed a bit from the city. It took an extra day for the water to get to them, but they were very much devastated. Because they were a little bit removed, the media didn’t report on them as much initially,” recounts Lambert, who found the Calgary-centric media reality of the flood hard to swallow in light of the real challenges experienced by those in surrounding communities. “It took a few days for those stories and photos to get out. Eventually they did get a good volunteer response.”
When it came to the homeless in Calgary, people turned up in droves to donate to the Drop-In Centre. Yet, despite the overwhelming incidence of charitable donations and volunteerism, the stories of those left without a home amid the city in a state-of-emergency went largely unheard. They were fated to wander, often alone, to find shelter along roads lined with natural gas leaks and flowing contaminants, among other, more unspeakable dangers.
“The homeless gentleman who is in the book, the handful of people who edited drafts for me, every person who’s read it, has picked that man, Gary, as their favourite character,” Lambert says. “I think the reason partially is that it’s sort of an adventure, stuck in downtown Calgary trying to get a place to stay. It’s a riveting read, a story no one’s heard. I never read anything in the media from the homeless perspective.”
Lambert himself, in his literary career, has taken to the extremes, the outsider perspectives, and exhibits that in his publishing as well. Among his many professional credentials as a former sports writer, columnist, investigative journalist and the list goes on, as a reporter for the Yellowknifer, he even saved the city of Yellowknife from the sure-unraveling, however then-modest, intensity of a forest fire.
Lambert’s Rising is a testament to the final truth of good literature: that it’s the writing that counts. Rising will allow Calgarians to remember the strength of their community, remember that the extraordinary, and startling force of the Bow River could not outmatch the human will to cohere in times of struggle.
“I grew up in Calgary, it’s very much home to me, and I know the city quite well, Southern Alberta in general. To write a book about this place is very familiar,” says Lambert, on the core meaning of Rising. “It does feel very comfortable to write a place that you call home.”
Join the launch party for Rising: Stories of the 2013 Alberta Flood at the Palomino Smokehouse (Calgary) June 2. There is no cover charge, and a quarter of the author’s proceeds benefit The Calgary Foundation’s Flood Rebuilding Fund.
By Matt Hanson
Photo/book cover design: Kyla Sergejew