Christie Harris 1998
“Born Celtic, I turned western” — Christie Harris
In 1998, Christie Harris received the fourth George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award for an Outstanding Literary Career in British Columbia.
She was born in Newark, New Jersey on November 21, 1907, one of five children in a family of Irish immigrants en route to Canada. The family arrived in British Columbia in early 1908, first to Fernie, then to the Shuswap area. When her father Ed Irwin fought in W.W. I, the family came to Vancouver, then operated a farm in Cloverdale.
While living in the Fraser Valley, she sold her first newspaper reports to the New Westminster Columbian at age 12. After her father returned from the war, she frequently attended farmers’ association meetings with him, then provided summaries for the local paper. “With part of her income,” says her son Gerald Harris, “her delight was to go to a Cloverdale cafe and have tea with a ham sandwich of white bakery bread, machine sliced, much more elegant than homemade bread.”
After graduation from Normal School, she taught school in Surrey at age 17; then she began writing stories for her pupils, at age 20, during a stint as a primary school teacher in Vancouver. The children’s section of The Vancouver Daily Province purchased these stories and made her a regular contributor.
Christie Irwin moved to Prince George to be in the vicinity of Thomas Arthur Harris, an RCMP constable she had known as a young man from a neighbouring farm in Surrey. They were married in 1932. Newly married at 24, Christie Harris had three babies within four years while living in White Rock; then she had two more children while living in the Lower Fraser Valley.
In her early years of marriage, she wrote primarily for the Province’s women’s page and also sent radio scripts to the CBC. With 24 hours notice, the CBC in Vancouver once commissioned her to provide a juvenile musical fantasy for the Coronation Day of King George VI — she subsequently collaborated with composer Harry Biener for a one-hour program.
Harris and Biener wrote seven collaborative works, projects, which Harris recalled fondly. For 20 years she was a prolific contributor to the CBC, providing hundreds of school broadcasts, an adventure serial, adult plays and humourous sketches “about the woman with five children, an old house, a neat husband and an ungovernable urge to write.”
In the 1950s she was also women’s editor for the Abbotsford-Sumas-Matsqui local weekly paper (1952-58) and adapted her radio adventure serial for her first book, Cariboo Trail (1957).
When her husband’s work as an immigration officer temporarily took the family to Prince Rupert in 1958, she agreed to undertake a series of school broadcast scripts on Coastal Indian cultures.
“I discovered that clearly the artistic genius of the North West Coast had been Charles Edenshaw, Haida Eagle Chief Edinsa,” she wrote. Her ongoing fascination with Native mythology and art led to numerous books, Once Upon a Totem (1963), West with the White Chiefs (1965) and most notably Raven’s Cry (1966), an historical novel that traces the Edenshaw lineage, with illustrations by Bill Reid, written after Harris conferred extensively with Edenshaw’s daughter Florence Davidson.
“Everyone except Bill warned me that the Edenshaw relatives would never tell their family stories to a white woman, a stranger.”
Christie Harris received her second Canadian Library Association Book of the Year Award in 1977 for Mouse Woman and the Vanished Princesses, one of her numerous retellings of Native folk material. She also wrote a crime novel, Mystery at the Edge of Two Worlds (1978), about the theft of Native artefacts.
She won a Canada Council Children’s Literature Prize for The Trouble with Princesses (1980), a 1973 Vicky Metcalf Award from the Canadian Authors Association recognizing her body of work, and an International Book of the Year Award for Secret in the Stlalakum Wild (1972).
On January 2, 2002, Christie Harris died at the age of 95, leaving behind her a vast, rich literary legacy. In her honour, the Christie Harris Illustrated Children’s Literature Award was created. It is awarded annually as a BC Book Prize to exemplary authors and illustrators of picture books, picture storybooks, and illustrated nonfiction books.
Cariboo Trail (1957)
You Have to Draw the Line Somewhere (1964)
Confessions of a Toe-Hanger (1967)
Forbidden Frontier (1968)
Let X Be Excitement (1969)
Figleafing Through History: The Dynamics of Dress (1971, with Moira Johnston)
Secret in the Stlalakum Wild (McClelland & Stewart, 1972)
Mule Lib (1972, with Tom Harris)
Sky Man on the Totem Pole (McCelland & Stewart, 1975)
Mouse Woman and the Mischief Makers (1977)
Mouse Woman and the Muddle-heads (1979)
The Trouble with Adventurers (1982)
Something Weird Is Going On (1994).
Her five children are Michael, Moira, Sheilagh, Brian and Gerald. “When people ask why I use my family so often as life models and technical advisors,” she wrote in 1977, “I always say it’s because they won’t sue or charge Mother. The truth is that they’ve always been more than willing to keep me straight, so they won’t be embarrassed by what I turn out.”
Christie Harris died on January 5, 2002.