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What a gal

River Queen:

The Amazing Story of Tugboat Titan Lucille Johnstone

By Paul E. Levy

Harbour, 2006

272 pages, $34.95

Usually I take issue with non-writers who attempt to write books, especially non-writers who attempt biographies. Inevitably, the book ends up being a string of extended quotes from the subject and from friends and family of the subject that are weakly linked together with a few limpid paragraphs of narrative and exposition.

At first glance this is the case with Paul Levy’s River Queen: The Amazing Story of Tugboat Titan Lucille Johnstone. The biography of Lucille Johnstone looks at a woman who was a fixture on the West Coast’s marine transportation industry for 45 years and who continued in retirement to be a consummate organizer for Expo 86 and the Vancouver Airport Authority.

Levy is a Vancouver lawyer who worked with Johnstone for many years and who convinced her to allow him to interview her at length before her death in 2004. And although writing is involved in law it is a different realm of writing that doesn’t make for good storytelling. But through the sheer force of Johnstone’s story, from unremarkable but dogged girl Friday to CEO of the province’s most powerful marine transportation company, Levy has woven a clean, straightforward and compelling story.

Levy doesn’t deviate from a straight-up chronological account of Johnstone’s life, starting as a child of entrepreneurial parents who ran a park concession stand through her days in vocational school, as a buyer for Vancouver’s perennial clothing store, Sally Shops, and into her days as a Girl Friday for the perpetually financially-challenged but ever expanding Rivtow.

Through lengthy interviews with Johnstone we learn how she managed to become a CGA while working full-time (by studying from midnight to 3 a.m.), how she arranged clever financial deals for Rivtow that took them from a small tugboat company to diversified corporation, and how she managed to marry at 39, adopt three children, run a not insignificant farm and then win a landmark divorce case that set a precedent for women throughout B.C.

When Johnstone finds a tax loophole that allows private companies to provide funding to a principal shareholder to buy a house we learn how she arranges a first mortgage on the owner of Rivtow’s home in order to secure a purchase for a $1.4 million barge that moves millions of logs over the next 40 years. “And it all came about from this little Mickey Mouse way of getting $38,000 into Cecil’s hands because of this capability within the tax law,” Johnstone recalls to the author. “I didn’t get any shares in the barge… In retrospect I should have seen the writing on the wall but I was too busy building, buying or trading something to worry about fair treatment.”

It is most certainly Lucille Johnstone’s voice that is the attraction of this book. Her pragmatic, clear-headed but full-steam ahead approach to life is somehow comforting and necessary in these uncertain times. Her character, and she was a woman of character as well as a character, is supported by interviews with such notables as business magnate Jimmy Pattison, Social Credit icon Grace McCarthy, and Reed Stenhouse chair Robert D’Arcy, who recalled the vital presence Johnstone was in even the most tedious of committee meetings. “But what I remember most about that meeting,” D’Arcy said, “was that Mrs. Johnstone was able to instantly project the total revenue that would be generated net — that is she seemed to have some handle on the costs of collection as well. She was very impressive and made an otherwise sleepy meeting interesting.”

River Queen is equally impressive, a solid, sleeper of a book that colours inside the lines of the story of a most memorable B.C. businesswoman, Lucille Johnstone.