Always Pack a Candle: A Nurse in the Cariboo-Chilcotin by Marion McKinnon Crook

“In 1963, newly minted public health nurse Marion McKinnon arrived in the small community of Williams Lake in BC’s Cariboo region. Armed with more confidence than experience, she got into her government-issued Chevy—packed with immunization supplies, baby scales, and emergency drugs—and headed out into her 9,300-square-kilometre territory, inhabited by ranchers; mill workers; and many vulnerable men, women, and children who were at risk of falling through the cracks of Canada’s social welfare system.”

British Columbia’s Cariboo region is a vast sprawl in the midst of the province that varies in colour from dusty browns and glacial scraped khaki to rolling, jack pine greens. Occasionally the area takes on forest fire hues of wind-gusted, wavering orange. I’ve spent time here, visiting, exploring, and working. Geographically, it reminds me of much of the centreline of BC, but like anywhere and everywhere, it remains culturally and historically unique.

Author Marion McKinnon Crook’s Always Pack a Candle draws us into this unique pocket of the province to a time (more or less) a half-century ago, when she, a well-trained, inexperienced nurse, was plunked into a swath of land the size of the UK to provide health care to everyone living and working there. Can you imagine? I try but immediately quash the thought. Simply too terrifying. But McKinnon Crook tackled the incomprehensible task with aptitude and growing aplomb, sharing her experiences in elegant, engaging prose.

“She helped countless people, made many mistakes, learned to recognize systemic injustice, and even managed to get into a couple of romantic entanglements. This is an unforgettable and eye-opening memoir of one frontline worker’s courage, humility, and compassion.”

Always Pack a Candle is a beautiful blend of memoir and history, its reach extending far beyond a specific time and geography to broad cultural mindsets – gender and race – that represent much of the world’s atrocious behaviour for centuries. Yet insight and personal experience are shared with patience, caring, and positive objectivity. The exact traits one hopes to receive from a health care provider, those invariably overworked and all too often underappreciated who make the rest of us better despite ourselves. Interestingly enough, reading McKinnon Crook I feel a sense not only of adventure and education but healing as well. As though this talented author and nurse can now hang up my chart for good, and send me healthily on my way.

Marion McKinnon Crook is a nurse, an educator, and the author of more than fifteen books. She began writing short stories in the 1960s while working as a public health nurse in the Cariboo. In addition to her nursing degree, McKinnon Crook holds a Master’s in liberal studies, and a Ph.D. in education. Now a full-time writer, she lives on BC’s Sunshine Coast with her dog and cat, who hate each other. For more information, visit

  • Title: Always Pack a Candle: A Nurse in the Cariboo-Chilcotin
  • Author: Marion McKinnon Crook
  • Publisher: Heritage House, 2021
  • ISBN: 9781772033625

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Bill Arnott is the bestselling author of A Season on Vancouver Island, theGone Viking travelogues, andA Perfect Day for a Walk: The History, Cultures, and Communities of Vancouver, on Foot(Arsenal Pulp Press, Fall 2024). Recipient of a Fellowship at London’s Royal Geographical Society for his expeditions, Bill’s a frequent presenter and contributor to magazines, universities, podcasts, TV and radio. When not trekking with a small pack and journal, Bill can be found on Canada’s west coast, where he lives near the sea on Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh land. 

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