By Jean Forbes-King
“To Climb a Mountain: Growing Up in the Canadian West Adventure Amid Turmoil” is a memorable book. It brings to life circumstances most of us will never personally experience, such as wrangling with a grizzly bear and panning for gold. The book follows the form of a classic Bildungsroman (novel of personal development), though “To Climb a Mountain” is not technically a novel. It falls somewhere between fact and fiction. The story is based on conversations and tapes provided by the subject, Bill Forbes-King, and is fleshed out in a spirited telling by his wife, Jean. In the book, young Bill Forbes-King confronts and survives challenges that mold his character. He struggles, stumbles and, ultimately, prevails.
“To Climb A Mountain” is not a perfect book. There are structural issues that disrupt the narrative flow. This is not a fatal flaw. The virtues of the book outweigh its defects. As I finished reading “To Climb a Mountain”, I thought of an artist I had recently discovered, Clementine Hunter.
Neither Bill Forbes-King nor Clementine Hunter had the benefit of an advanced education. Hunter worked as a manual laborer. Through her days of physical labor she observed her environment. These observations she immortalized in paintings that lacked technical expertise but that revealed, brilliantly, the world in which she lived. From her pictures, we see her world.
Bill Forbes-King, also, gives an unsophisticated, unfiltered view of his world. Though his wife wrote this book, it is his young voice – adventurous, naive and discovering – that comes through.
Forbes-King began life with few advantages. He never knew his father, a WWI vet who died before his son was born. Forbes-King and his mother leave their native England and migrate to Canada. After years of struggling to support her son, the mother dies while the boy is still a teenager. At this point, the orphan is put into the foster care system. Here he has a varied experience, not all of it positive.
At 17, with WWII raging, Bill Forbes-King decides to join the battle. He signs up for service and is shipped out to Europe. For a good part of the book, readers are given eyewitness accounts of this young soldier at war. His war accounts are some of the most dramatic in the narrative.
Upon his return home, at war’s end, Forbes-King transitions to civilian life with nothing but his wits and survival skills to support him. He takes a series of positions, mostly in the Canadian West, where he meets a host of colorful characters.
While “To Climb a Mountain” could use some reorganization and editing, it is a distinctive and original book. Ms. Forbes-King is a good writer. She offers readers a credible and entertaining account of her husband’s life. I enjoyed this book and recommend it to readers.
A. G. Moore July 6, 2017