Review: Journeywoman by Kate Braid

My Quick Take: What an enjoyable and inspiring tale of Braid’s becoming a carpenter in 1970’s and 80’s British Columbia when the trades were considered “men’s work” even more so than today.

I’m so pleased to have discovered local BC writer Kate Braid! I read her most recent poetry collection Elemental last month, and I’ve followed it up with her 2012 memoir Journeywoman: Swinging a Hammer in a Man’s World, published by Caitlin Press

What a fascinating account of her life, gradually finding her path to a career in the trades as a carpenter. She shows us exactly what it took for her to step up and demand a place working alongside her male colleagues. We see it from job to job as she builds her own confidence in her abilities. It’s so interesting that she not only had to fight to take her place and work as a woman on job sites and bidding for contract work, but also that she had to fight her own powerful inner battle for confidence. It was a struggle on two fronts. 

I see her poetic nature shine through on the page. She can be talking about something as ordinary as being outdoors building everyday, but her beautiful words elevate the scene:
“I love being outdoors all day, feeling my body fit and tanned…And all my senses are alive. The smell of fresh sweat is a turn-on, and the sweet smells of fir and hemlock are everywhere. Sometimes, if I accidentally rub against a bleeding board, I’ll carry the perfume of pitch with me all day. There’s the scratch of boards, the prickle of insulation, the sharpness of nails.”
She gets granular in the telling, and I found it strangely compelling to read the details of building forms for the 1980s Vancouver SkyTrain, raising the wall of a house, or putting up a roof. It is a chronicle of the sheer effort required to accomplish something, and the scariness of having to step up and pretend you know what you’re doing when you really don’t always. That’s what it can take to succeed in a hostile, high pressure environment. I can relate in a very real way, as medical school had tons of the same overtones, without the blatant sexism (that, at least, had been largely dealt with in medicine a generation back from me).

Indeed, the misogyny that Braid faced is a palpable presence throughout; I’m humbled by her courage and thankful that women in her shoes made things easier for me. I loved the solidarity she shared with other women in the trades! But I also appreciated her generosity of spirit to the men that she worked with. She isn’t shy to call out hatred and unacceptable behaviour when deserved, but also approaches her male co-workers gently and with respect when deserved. She gets a lot of questions and skepticism from the men, but:
“I’m careful, knowing how important it is that their questions and doubts be addressed–and how rare it is for them, how precious to me, when they say out loud what’s really on their minds. I never know how they’ll take my answers, but as these exchanges keep happening I’m humbled at the implications. These guys are with me on the cutting edge of change. I’m touched by their grace."
Near the end of the book, she points to her love of writing, and ends up going back to school to pursue it as a career in her 40s after 15 years of being a carpenter. This is also inspiring to me, as I’ve taken a step to change my own life in my middle years, from medicine to something new that I haven’t yet defined for myself. But Braid will always have the soul of a carpenter, as I will always have the soul of a doctor.
“...I’m surprised by the strength of my reaction when someone introduces me as a woman who used to be a carpenter. It stops me dead. Used to be?

For fifteen years that work engaged every fibre of my being. Not just all my senses, though those too, but all my muscle, all my skill, all my intelligence, and very quickly all my love. I can no more leave that behind than I can leave my body behind. I realize it only as I say it.

Not used to, I tell them. I’ll always be a carpenter.”