It was the summer of 1975 in Vancouver, Canada, and 28-year-old Kate Braid was planning to return to college for the fall semester. "For that, I needed a chunk of money, fast." How would she get it?
"Up north." Actually, until the words came out of my mouth, I had no plan at all, but in 1975, whenever a guy wanted money in British Columbia, he went "up north"—to Kitimat, Smithers, Prince George—and came back with pocketfuls. It was boom days in northern BC; trees were being cut as fast as loggers could topple them, and dams, mills, roads, whole towns were popping up. If a man could earn big money up north, why couldn't I?
Braid and a woman friend bought camping gear at an Army Surplus store, hitchhiked their way north, "and for the next two weeks applied at every sawmill, paper mill and fish processing plant between Williams Lake and Prince Rupert." At each one, "the foreman took one look and said, 'Sorry, girls'..."
Finally, they got a ride with a Native woman who knew a planer mill that would hire them. The next day, wearing hard-hats and ear protectors, Braid and her friend were piling the reject slabs coming off the mill line into steel carts. Or trying to.
Janet and I keep forgetting which mark goes where. The wood won't lie straight. I get my pieces crossed with Janet's and once a cart is almost full, it's so hard to get the last pieces to the top. Suddenly, with a long scream, the whole chain grinds to a halt.
After the foreman sorts them out, they resume piling. And piling. And piling.
Every morning for a week, I wake up stiff in a new part of my body, but I love this work... Work on the planer chain starts awkwardly every time, but after an hour or so, I get in the rhythm. Turn, bend, pull; turn, bend, pull. If I use the boards' own momentum, I only have to guide them into place, like obedient dogs on a short leash. By week two, my body feels slim and strong, and I hardly have to stop to remember what each blue mark means. One morning when I pile two boards at once, it feels so good that I laugh out loud.
A year or so later, Braid leaves the city again for a break from school and a relationship and finds her way to a cabin on the Gulf Islands. She gets a job as a laborer at a school under construction, and falls in love with working with wood, muscle, and tool to build something tangible.
Journeywoman follows Braid through awakening to her body as strong and capable, through gaining a spot in the apprentice carpentry program, surviving steady and sometimes dangerous harassment from her male co-workers, and into work as full-fledged journeywoman, Union member, and contractor. It's a cracking good read, full of wry observations on the trades and the politics of being female in a line of work where our particular gender is still at a disadvantage, decades later.
As a woman who had never used a power tool until recently, and now knows both the "dance with lumber" and the sheer, laugh-out-loud joy of mastering a new machine and a new skill, the highs and lows of Braid's journey were especially resonant. But it's not necessary to know how to use a carpenter's square to get this book. Anyone who has ever been told "Sorry, Girls," will find herself nodding, wincing, worrying and cheering Braid on.
Read an excerpt from this book.
Kate Braid worked as a receptionist, secretary, teacher's aide, lumber piler, construction laborer, apprentice and journey carpenter before becoming a teacher of construction and creative writing. She has taught creative writing in workshops and at Simon Fraser University, the University of British Columbia, and for ten years at Vancouver Island University. She is the writer, co-writer and editor of several books of poetry and non-fiction. Kate lives in Vancouver. Visit her website.
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