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Reviewed by:
  • Maria Mahoi of the Islands
  • Melanie Buddle
Maria Mahoi of the Islands. Jean Barman. Vancouver: New Star Books Ltd., 2004. Pp. 103, illus. $16.00

Historian and educator Jean Barman, one of the most prolific authors of western Canadian history texts, is particularly adept at telling women's stories. Maria Mahoi of the Islands could be described as 'popular' history; although her previous books could and should be read by a broad audience, this short book is especially well-suited to a general reading public. It provides a fine example of Barman's accessible writing style, her interest in women's stories, and her commitment to the history of British Columbia.

Barman tells the story of Maria Mahoi, a woman of Aboriginal and Hawaiian descent born in approximately 1855. As Barman explains, Mahoi was a creation of frontier culture. Her racially hybrid background and frontier relationships mark her as a product of colonial British Columbia. Mahoi's first relationship, when she was fifteen, was with a twenty-seven-year-old American sea captain named Abel Douglas. While [End Page 387] never legally married, they had seven children together. Barman suggests that Mahoi had successfully 'snatched' a respectable newcomer – but only temporarily. Douglas left her in the 1880s. As British Columbia became more respectable (or more 'white'), the emerging settler society had less interest in, or need for, mixed marriages. Barman suggests that Maria's hybrid inheritance 'was scorned as a remnant of the frontier.' She found herself 'outside the boundaries of acceptability.'

This may explain why her second relationship was with a man who, like herself, would have been uncharitably described as a half-breed. George Fisher was the product of an Englishman's marriage to an Aboriginal woman. Fisher met Maria, who was ten years his senior, around 1885 when he was in his early twenties. They had six children together. He legally married Maria, but not until about 1900, when he had a near-fatal accident. Barman speculates that Fisher, perhaps aware of his lack of respectability, was reluctant to marry Maria, except that he wanted his children to be legitimate. It seems he was loath to acknowledge his hybridity; Fisher was enumerated as white in the 1901 census, although Barman notes that we have no way of knowing whether this was Fisher's description or an enumerator's guess.

The rest of the book documents Maria and George's sometimes-tumultuous life together on Russell Island, just off Salt Spring Island. Maria Mahoi inherited the property, although Barman explains that her claim to it was dubious. Whether or not she had legitimately inherited it, Russell Island became hers, and the hub of all her family activities. Interestingly, Barman's thesis for this book is that Maria was an 'everyday woman,' and that her story testifies to the worth of an ordinary life. That she mothered thirteen children, outlived six of them, married a man ten years her junior, later wrested him away from a love affair that nearly destroyed the marriage, and acquired her own property suggests that she was not so very ordinary. While many women had ten or more children, not all were as resourceful as Maria, nor were many women property owners. The point, of course, is valuable: stories about everyday people, living their lives, looking after their families without becoming famous, matter in the larger historical consciousness. It does feel, however, as though Barman just wanted to tell this woman's fascinating story and felt she needed a thesis statement to tie it together.

Perhaps because of the book's marketing and its presumed appeal to 'ordinary' folks (akin to Maria herself), footnotes are not provided, although at the end of the book, Barman provides an extensive summary of her sources. It is unfortunate that footnotes are not included, as they would be of much interest to some readers, while others could pass them by if uninterested. [End Page 388]

Maria Mahoi of the Islands is, in essence, a simple and interesting portrait of a self-sufficient and hardy pioneer woman, who survived by eking out a life for herself among other hybrid families on and around Salt Spring Island. The...