Review of Once They Were Hats: In Search of the Mighty Beaver by Frances Backhouse

By the end of the first chapter of Once They Were Hats, two things were clear.

First, that Frances Backhouse is a writer in her prime, able to parse complex bits of data for the reader while also telling a good story. Second, that while beavers were economically important to Canada’s fur trade, if they are allowed to repopulate Canada’s watershed, they might help stabilize our climate-changed, over-developed ecosystems.

Backhouse is a writer who in her own words has always danced “back and forth between short-form and long-form, journalism and creative nonfiction.”

And so, in addition to her work teaching creative writing at the University of Victoria, in addition to her magazine journalism, Backhouse is the author of five books, the last of which won the 2010 City of Victoria Butler Book Prize.

With Once They Were Hats, Backhouse has shifted her gaze away from the women and children of the Klondike, from field guides on owls and woodpeckers, to tell the story of humans AND beavers.

That is, how we’ve co-existed in the past and how we might live together in the future.

Once They Were Hats ranges back in forth in time, across kilometers and cultures. Backhouse is always respectful, curious, and thoughtful in her treatment of everything from fur trapping to beaver archaeology, from Grey Owl’s conservation legacy to the architecture of beaver dams and lodges.

Most importantly, she explains what scientists mean when they say that beavers are a keystone species. Simply put, they change the landscape, primarily by keeping water on the land.

This trait is what brings them into conflict with cottagers, farmers, and suburbanites, but Backhouse shows that the beaver’s main legacy, besides flooded fields and chewed-on shorelines, is that they create and maintain healthy ecosystems.

So: Once They Were Hats works as a cultural history of the beaver. It could almost be used as a master class on how to write long-form creative nonfiction. But will it prod Canadians to rethink their relationship with Castor canadensis? Here’s hoping!

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer with a background in science and journalism. Her second collection of poetry, Stowaways (Palimpsest Press, 2014), won the 2015 Lansdowne Prize for Poetry. She is currently writing creative nonfiction about Winnipeg’s urban forest, which is slated for publication in 2018 with Wolsak & Wynn. Gordon works as promotions coordinator at University of Manitoba Press and is a frequent contributor to the Winnipeg Free Press’ books section.