Alan Fry was a civil servant and author of seven books who was happiest in the wilderness – a man who could bake bread and operate a treadle sewing machine as handily as he wielded an axe – or his pen. For two decades, he worked for the federal department of Indian Affairs as an “Indian agent,” acting as the chief administrator and arbiter for First Nations communities in rural British Columbia. He turned what he witnessed during his tenure into a bleak, searing novel titled How a People Die.
Upon the book’s publication in 1970, N. Scott Momaday, the Native American novelist, wrote a review in The New York Times that called it “one of the most sensitive and incisive statements on the subject of human alienation I have ever seen.” In Canada, while the reviews were positive, there were calls for Mr. Fry to be fired because he had the gall to portray the dysfunction in the lives of First Nations peoples when, as a government employee, his duty was to remain discreet.
But the First Nations peoples he worked with backed him up. He was their guy, they said, and he knew what he was talking about.
The book starts with the death of an infant on the fictional Kwasi Reserve near Vancouver. The reserve is a human black hole, with homes in states of long disrepair, littered with empty liquor bottles and peopled with bleary, red-eyed citizens who drink themselves into oblivion each night and stumble through their days. Then, one Saturday morning, the infant is found in her crib, her body covered in sores and encrusted with feces and dirt. Although the parents are arrested and charged with criminal neglect, the book takes on issues that are as urgent today as they were to Mr. Fry back then – issues such as substance abuse, domestic violence and an overwhelming sense of futility. What do you do when you have no hope or expectations? What can you do?
How can you lay blame for a death when life itself does not matter?
Mr. Fry’s proxy in the novel, Arne Saunders, finds the Indians “the hardest goddammed people on earth to help.” Whenever he tries, it only seems to encourage more shiftlessness and drunkenness, a vicious circle in which he feels complicit, frustrated and increasingly helpless.
As one of the characters matter-of-factly states: “Tell us in fact how a people die and we can tell you how a people live.”
For Mr. Fry, who was surrounded by his family when he died at 10:30 a.m. on March 23, every death left behind a trail of evidence – of successes and failures, of joyous occasions, and good times and bad. He died the way he had lived: decisively, in control and with medical help, because he was unwilling to go on as an invalid, dependent on others for everything he’d taken for granted. One of his legs had been amputated above the knee in June 2016 because of a condition called venous insufficiency, and the other one was amputated 18 months later.
“He was at home for 14 months, still active in a wheelchair, making white and brown bread that I’d take to the local food bank each week, but he was losing strength. He had to be hoisted to go to the toilet,” said his wife of more than 37 years, Eileen Fry. “This was not his life. This was not how he wanted to be remembered.”
Mr. Fry was 86 years old.
In an obituary he helped write, he called himself “a competent person with skills spanning most of the century,” and a man who built, baked and made things better.
“Alan had a long and well-developed stubborn streak,” the obituary continued, “and was frequently unwilling to let facts get in the way of his chosen path. These traits notwithstanding, he was affable, loving and generous.”
Alan Fry was born in Lac La Hache, B.C., on April 21, 1931, the younger of Julian and Eva Fry’s two boys. His father was a rancher who had emigrated from England to the Cariboo, determined to carve out a life separate from that of his own father, Roger Fry, a painter and art critic who was a member of the Bloomsbury Circle and counted Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey and Vanessa Bell among his friends.
“He didn’t want to be forever known as Roger Fry’s son,” said Douglas Gibson, who published How a People Die in 1970. “He made sure that art critics and literary lights were as far away as possible.”
Under his father’s tutelage, young Alan learned how to properly wield an axe, ride horses, build fences and play with words. He loved it there and balked when his parents separated, especially after his mother took him and his older brother, Roger, away. First, they went to Williams Lake, about 70 kilometres northwest of Lac La Hache, then south to Vancouver, where Eva Fry ran a boarding house and taught her sons how to cook and bake.
Mr. Fry, in his teens at the time, was not happy. He missed his father and he missed the countryside. He ran away one day, heading north to Lac La Hache, which he thought of as home.
After graduating from high school, Mr. Fry attended the University of British Columbia for a year but got restless, dropping out to join the Canadian Army Active Force. In 1952, he returned to ranching. Soon after, he became an Indian Agent, preferring to live in tents and tepees until he married and had two daughters. His first wife, Sylvia (née Thomson), was his match, a loving mother to the girls until she died in 1970 from lung cancer, despite never having smoked.
At the time, his daughters, Margery and Lydia, were 14 and 11, respectively.
Mr. Fry wrote seven books in all. The first, published in 1962, was The Ranch on the Cariboo, a memoir of growing up and discovering exactly where he belonged; 56 years later, it still generates royalties. Others included The Revenge of Annie Charlie, a humorous tale that features Indigenous characters outwitting non-Indigenous society after the murder of a white man; Come A Long Journey; and The Burden of Adrian Knowle. In 1973, there was The Wilderness Survival Handbook, which he wrote after quitting the civil service, selling two log cabins he’d built by hand and settling into a teepee on the shores of Lake Laberge, just north of Whitehorse.
“He lived there year-round, even during the months where the temperature dropped to below 40, where Celsius and Fahrenheit meet,” said Mr. Gibson, who remained friends with Mr. Fry until the end.
Mr. Fry exited the teepee for good after becoming reacquainted with Eileen Frankish, whom he’d known back in the 1960s, when he was living with his family in Whitehorse. Now, he was a widower and she was divorced; they married in December, 1980.
After he quit the civil service, he kept busy, including working for the Klondike Placer Miners’ Association as its executive director. In 1996, the association gave him an honorary gold pan on which was inscribed: “A better man for a more difficult task could not be found.”
In 2008, he was inducted into the BC Cowboy Hall of Fame for his “artistic achievements.” He cherished the carving he received as a gift from the Cape Mudge people of Quadra Island, with whom he had worked, always noting that it depicted a spirit monster that roamed the forests to frighten little children back to bed, where their mothers had told them to stay.
Howard White, the president of Harbour Publishing, which reissued How a People Die in 1993, called Mr. Fry one of the finest writers ever to come out of B.C., for he found his voice through the experience of his own life. “Reading his books, fiction and nonfiction, you encounter a reality that comes from real experience and communicating,” he said.
Along with his wife, Mr. Fry leaves his daughters, Margery Kay and Lydia Piper; stepson, Kenneth Frankish; stepdaughter, Carolyn Frankish; brother, Roger Fry; half-sister, Joan Fry; eight grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.