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Shuswap author’s first book examines girlhood in wake of Armstrong murder

Through this traumatic event, Emelia Symington-Fedy shines a light on the power of girlhood
Emilia Symington-Fedy’s true crime memoir, Skid Dogs, was published Sept. 9, 2023. (Zev Tiefenbach photo)

A Shuswap author has published a book that explores the power of girlhood, seeking to reclaim that power in the wake of the tragic murder of an Armstrong teen on Halloween night in 2011.

Taylor Van Diest was killed near the railroad tracks on Pleasant Valley Road. Her killer received a life sentence in June 2018.

Emilia Symington-Fedy’s book, Skid Dogs, tells the story of how she and her girlfriends used to hang out on the tracks in Armstrong. When two decades later Van Diest was murdered on those same tracks, she returns to her hometown to comfort her mother, who is fearful of the murderer who is at large. Back on the tracks where she grew up, Symington-Fedy begins to question her own coming of age, and the wounds it left start to show.

The book is an unflinching reckoning with ’90s teenage rape culture and tells the dark and hilarious story of a 13-year-old and her girl gang as they navigate the misogyny of high school life, their love for one another holding them together, even while sexual coercion and assault tear them apart.

But while the book touches upon serious subject matter, it is brimming with hope and joy; it’s an empowering celebration of girls who overcome the male gaze, who unleash their joy into a dangerous world.

Moving between the unstoppable joy of friendships, the long shadow of sexual violence and the griefs and loves of adulthood, Skid Dogs is a story about the places where girls are unruly and free.

“Nobody gets a secret window into how girls are when there’s no parents or boys around. We’re crazy,” Symington-Fedy told The Morning Star. “There’s a wildness to us that was just unstoppable, and so that’s the freedom and the kind of celebratory empowerment I want folks to pull from the book.”

The joy of girlhood seeps into the tone of the book; Quill and Quire called the book “screamingly funny.”

For Symington-Fedy, the humour in her book cuts through the traumatic subject matter she deals with, embuing it with the kind of nuance that makes it true to life.

“Humour takes us deeper,” she said.

Symington-Fedy has since walked those tracks where she and her friends used to congregate. She’s noticed that since the murder, the tracks are vacant.

With her book, she asks, “what could be possible if the girls reclaimed those tracks metaphorically?”

Symington-Fedy describes conversations she’s had with her two sons about the “inherent power” they wield, teaching them that a big part of their responsibility in life is to uplift and support, and to not necessarily be at the centre of things.

“I’m trying to prepare them for the inevitable downfall of the patriarchy,” she said. “They are already smarter than I am. We’re doing our best.”

Symington-Fedy says the big issue for women is “the hard work of being honest, and a willingness to hurt feelings. For men, the work is to get curious even if it’s deeply uncomfortable.”

She references a well-known quote by Canadian author Margaret Atwood: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

Symington-Fedy says she didn’t write Skid Dogs for her old friends, or for men to learn a lesson. Rather, she wrote it so that the 14-year-old girl like her out there might make different choices, and realize the power of their girlhood.

Van Diest’s murder sent shockwaves of trauma through the community of Armstrong, and Symington-Fedy admits she’s worried about bringing that back to her hometown.

“But I know when I say her name, Armstrong girls’ eyes light up in knowing. And her mother is grateful she’s not forgotten. So, I’ve decided, it’s more important to talk and be uncomfortable than be silent and try to move on. Because we don’t move on. This tragedy re-shaped our town. Let’s reclaim the tracks, and never forget and demand more, so there’s less chance of it happening again.”

She says the book is a celebration of the life of Van Diest, who was “vivacious” and knew how to stand up for herself.

“It is traumatic, but how I want to rise above the trauma is to remember the joy.”

Symington-Fedy lives in the Shuswap with her family and will be launching her first book Nov. 18 at the Salmon Arm Art Gallery at 7 p.m.

Skid Dogs is available for purchase on Amazon and can also be found at Bookingham Palace in Salmon Arm.

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Brendan Shykora

About the Author: Brendan Shykora

I started at the Morning Star as a carrier at the age of 8. In 2019 graduated from the Master of Journalism program at Carleton University.
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