Not many writers are also accomplished artists and crack shots with a .22. Or are finishing their fifth book at age 92.
Comox resident Ruth Dickson is all of the above.
This Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m., she’ll be signing copies of her new book, Among the Blue Mountains, at the Pearl Ellis Gallery of Fine Art at 1729 Comox Ave. Some of Dickson’s paintings will also be in the Brushworks group exhibit until Nov. 27.
Among the Blue Mountains is a warm, charming and often funny story about family life in a logging camp at Fairbridge near Cowichan Station and the author’s first camping trip — a seven-week sojourn with her husband and their three children.
Dickson has a knack for taking an “incident” and creating a funny anecdote out of it. While reading the book I gained insights into a once common way of coastal life and enjoyed the adventures of a lively young family living in an isolated community.
And I laughed out loud on more than one occasion.
Dickson grew up on a lighthouse in Scotland. When she was eight, her family immigrated to a Saskatchewan farm. She started writing in Sayward.
Her husband, George, worked away and Dickson spent a lot of time alone with her small children. She jotted down poems, hiding them in her sewing basket. She also experimented with her kids’ paints and pastels.
“My mother had a wonderful education and I wanted one, too,” explains Dickson. “But I grew up in the ’30s and that didn’t happen. So after I got married I decided to learn something new every year. I discovered you can learn your whole life — and to never be afraid to try something new.”
Eventually Dickson taught herself how to use her daughter’s typewriter and the “scraps in her basket” became Voice of the Salmon River, an illustrated book of poems. The Forest Museum in Duncan had agreed to publish the book but when funding dried up, Dickson self-published.
The family’s move to the Cowichan Valley in the 1950s connected Dickson to other artists and writers. She participated in group and solo art shows, won won writing contests and wrote articles for the Victoria Times Colonist, The Scots Magazine and had a children’s column in the Duncan newspaper. In 1984 she won first place in the poetry division of the Surrey International Writing Contest.
After a poem and short story were accepted by Nelsons for one of their language development readers in 1973, Dickson began taking night school English courses at university level. She also took her art portfolio to the University of Victoria and was accepted into the second year of the art program.
“I always write the first draft of a book in longhand,” she says. “It all just pours out in a stream of consciousness. Then I go over it time and time again, shortening the sentences and putting events in order.
“The books are easy for me to write but I fret about having them sound right. I don’t think a person can ever do too many rewrites.”
Originally the stories were just for family. But after moving to Comox, neighbour Angela Burns suggested she consider a larger audience.
Dickson wasn’t sure if her work was good enough. So, at age 90, she attended a week-long workshop at the Victoria School of Writing.
“I arrived with my writing and my walker and discovered that I was the oldest student they’d ever had,” she recalls.
To her surprise, the instructor said her work was funny and good. Then a story she wrote for young adults made the short list in the Surrey International Writing Contest. That was the encouragement Dickson needed to proceed.
The Lighthouse Kids, a fictionalized account of her family’s experiences on lighthouses came out in 2008 with Pebbles in the Stream — River Rocks following two years later. Pebbles is a memoir about Dickson’s life in Sayward and includes the story of her shooting a cougar as it crept up on her four-month old baby.
Among the Blue Mountains, the sequel to Pebbles, is based on diary entries and sketches made while the family living in a logging camp and spent a summer camping. The cover features one of her original paintings.
Dickson has a clever and amusing writing style that makes the reader feel like they’re hearing a first-hand account of a sticky situation over a cup of coffee. Her stories are personal, yet universal; sometimes frightening and often funny.
Although Dickson turns 93 on Dec. 10, she isn’t ready to retire yet. She still paints and is working on her next book, Strangers to the Land, a memoir of her life in Scotland and on the Prairies. She’s also got plans for a collection of young people’s stories and an idea for a short story series based in an imaginary mill town.
“I like to keep interested in things,” Dickson says. “I like to create things and keep my mind working. And it’s rewarding to share what I create with others.”