Saturday, December 31, 2011

On the Farm

Generally I make it a rule not to read two books of similar subject matter back-to-back.  I need to break up my reading so that there is variety and I don't get bored with reading the same genre.  I recently broke that rule after a fortuitous trip to the library.  I have been trying to take Stevie Cameron's recent book On the Farm for some time now and it has always been on hold or on the wait list.  I happened to be in the library and I thought that I would look for it, holding out little hope that it would be available.  Happily it was on the shelves and I got my grubby paws on it.   

Back to my original point about not reading two books consecutively which revolve around the same topics.  On the Farm and Missing Sarah both chronicle the story of the missing women of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, albeit from totally different perspectives.  Missing Sarah is a personal narrative about Sarah de Vries, a prostitute who vanishes and whose DNA is later recovered from the Pickton Farm.  On the Farm is the overall story of the missing women, Robert Pickton, and the police investigation.  Cameron focuses on the narrative of the events, and profiles key players along the way.  This book is particularly relevant at this juncture in time, because of the Public Inquiry into the Vancouver Police Department`s handling (or mishandling) of the case.  

There were a number of points during the investigation that the VPD went wrong, most of which can be detected with common sense and hindsight.  The part of the investigation, which, in my opinion, was handled incorrectly was the hoops that the families of the missing women had to jump through in order to declare that their loved ones were Missing Persons.  By virtue of their lifestyles, many family members were given the brush off when they went to the VPD to tell them that someone had gone missing.  Though they had personal demons, these women could be counted on to regularly call their families, attend doctor`s appointments, and collect their welfare cheques.  Also, due to the amount of women vanishing, other members of the Downtown Eastside community were diligent about keeping tabs on one another`s whereabouts.  Still, families were told to wait, sometimes for months, to see if their family member would suddenly turn up.  After this waiting period, any leads as to where the person might be would have long gone cold.  Understandably, families grew frustrated with the double standard with which missing prostitutes were treated by the police department, and the subsequent inaction on their case files.  

The other frustration which appears in this book, is the inability of the VPD to act when Pickton had been one of the main suspects for years.  Kim Rossmo, a geographic profiler brought in to work on the case, pointed out specific traits that Pickton possessed, and he was totally ignored at that time.  Hindsight being what it is, there are a lot of people who regret not investigating Pickton more thoroughly earlier.  What angers me is that an officer did request a warrant to search the farm three years prior to Pickton`s arrest, but a judge turned him down due to lack of evidence.  Thus, from the standpoint of someone outside the law enforcement profession, it is difficult to not be angry while reading this book.

Besides the anger at those who did not aid the families of the missing women, one feels a lot of revulsion as well.  Cameron does not spare any of the details of the forensic findings in her book, and I will warn you that there are a lot of gruesome passages.  There were times when I needed to take a break because the horror of what was done to these women was just too much for me.  I don`t think that I am remiss in saying that if you feel you could get through those sections, you should reconsider reading this book.  Despite my declaimer, I do think that this is an important book to read for those interested in the case.  If you could get through the gory portions of the narrative, you would find this book to be a well-written account of the investigation.  It is difficult to communicate such a complex story, but Cameron manages to do so with thorough research and compelling writing.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Missing Sarah

To begin this blog, I would like to make a confession.  I generally do not like watching movies or reading books where the ending is well-known.  Despite its romantic nature and poetic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet is probably my least favourite Shakespearean play, for just this reason.  With this in mind, I began to read Missing Sarah by Maggie de Vries.  

The book begins with the revelation that the DNA of Maggie's adopted sister, was found on Robert Pickton's farm in Port Coquitlam, BC.  Along with many other sex workers from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Sarah de Vries disappeared suddenly in 1998 while working her usual corner.  Her absence was noticed quickly by her loved ones and the tight-knit community of drug addicts and prostitutes that she associated with, but the police were slow to act.  It was only when her friend Wayne went to the media that any interest was shown by the Vancouver Police Department, and by then all the leads had run cold.  Due to the inaction of the police, the families of the missing women banded together to try and gain any answers about the state of the investigation.  Local media also played a part in pressuring the force to pay attention to the increasing number of women going missing.  

Missing Sarah depicts this fight for justice and is a compelling story of a grieving relative. She tells of how her family is dealing with the information that they will never be able to bury Sarah, nor can they live in the comfort that her last moments were peaceful. One of the more chilling moments is how someone approached Sarah's children and asked them if their mother was put in a wood chipper.  This book was written prior to Robert Pickton's trial and one cannot imagine how the publicity surrounding it would have negatively affected them.  

Though Sarah's horrific, unknown fate is at the centre of the book, her identity and personality really shine through the grisly narrative.  She wrote poetry and drew in a journal that was among her most treasured possessions.  In it she describes her life as an addict and a prostitute and provides a lot of insight into her life.  Maggie talks about how she would read her sister's letters and journal and every time she would hope that her sister's fate would turn out differently.  I, as a reader, had a similar sensation and constantly wanted to forget that she is no longer with us.  Though I don't have much in common with Sarah (except that we both like to write), I think any woman is a few bad choices away from ending up living the same lifestyle as she did.  Many people like to brush prostitutes aside as a small, fringe element of society, but de Vries allows us to see a different side of the story.