Greg Halseth. Cottage Country in Transition: A Social Geography of Change and Contention in the Rural-Recreational Countryside. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998, 237 pp. $60.00 cloth.

The number of books that discuss recent change in Canada’s non-urban regions are too few - the number that recognize rural areas as diverse and not homogeneous entities are even fewer. Halseth’s book does both. His is a well-written study of social change in a particular type of rural milieu that he calls the “rural-recreational countryside”. These areas tend to be known to urban dwellers as cottage country and are often portrayed in beer commercials. Halseth’s book shows us that these areas are populated by more than a summer population of wealthy professionals from urban areas. The image of cottage country ignores the rural population surrounding the lakes. The increasing pressures of rising property prices and the conversion of summer residences into year-round residences is having an effect on social conditions here. The landscape has become increasingly divided, both physically and socially, between cottagers and the rural residents. Halseth’s book is an attempt to better understand these changes.

While Halseth is a geographer by training, few sociologists would have difficulty understanding his central themes, his methodology or his analysis. His study is a comparison of change in two particular places, the Rideau Lakes area in Ontario and the Cultus Lake area in British Columbia, using a questionnaire survey, interviews and secondary data. The book is divided into three main parts. After a summary of the book in the first chapter, the second chapter elaborates on cottaging as an ideal and as a practice. Chapter 3 discusses theories needed to understand social change in the “rural-recreational countryside” and the methods used in the study. He argues that political economy is the best theoretical framework to understand what is happening in these areas but he also notes that such a framework has to be open enough to take into account the cultural aspects of both the cottage way of life and the rural way of life.

The second part of the book is a description of what is happening in the two study areas. Chapter 4 introduces us to the Rideau Lakes and to Cultus Lake. Halseth points out that while there are important differences in the physical and social characteristics of these two regions, they are similar in that they are both regionally important recreational areas which serve adjacent metropolitan areas. As well, they both contain a non-recreational rural population. Chapter 5 describes the characteristics of the residents of these areas through an analysis of his questionnaire respondents. The population is divided into three main groups: rural residents, seasonal occupants and converters, people who have converted seasonal residences into year-round homes. Although Halseth is perhaps not as clear as he could be, the reader gets the general idea that cottagers and converters in both areas are of a different socio-economic category than the rural residents and that the majority of them maintain strong links to the adjacent metropolitan areas. Converters are primarily exurbanites who tend to associate amongst themselves. In Chapter 6 a rather confusing array of housing data is analyzed to highlight the distinguishing characteristics of converters and their impact on these regions. The end result of this analysis is the observation that converters tend to locate on lakeshores.

The third part of the book deals with the change that is occurring in these areas by examining local social and political organizations and recent debates. Chapter 7 examines the characteristics of local community groups while Chapter 8 looks at local government structure. These chapters do a good job of showing how, despite different political contexts in the two locations, participation in social organizations and interaction with local political structures by cottagers and converters is distinct from that of rural residents. Chapters 9 and 10 are the most interesting from a sociological perspective. Here Halseth uses recent political debates to analyze the interests of each specific group and the shifting power structures in each of these regions. In the Rideau Lakes area cottagers and converters seek to protect their property values and their image of cottage life by adopting an increasingly environmentally-conscious discourse. They are also increasingly influential in decisions made about the region. The rural residents resent the increasing importance of cottager/converter interests and are attempting to “take back” the debate. The Cultus Lake area is different in that confrontation between cottagers/converters is less visible than confrontation between rural residents and perceived outside forces which are challenging their “rural way of life .”

Halseth’s book is a valuable addition to the literature on social change in non-urban areas. He clearly defines a particular type of rural area and does a good job of describing what is happening there. If there is a criticism to be made of this book it is that it is heavy on description and light on analysis. The reader is constantly tempted to construct a theoretical framework to explain what is happening in the Rideau Lakes area only to find out that it does not seem to apply to the Cultus Lake area. Indeed the book is a frustrating read for sociologists who are looking for a clear theoretical explanation of what is happening in these areas. Things are seemingly too complex for simplistic explanations. The real reason may be that Halseth has not dug deep enough to find these explanations.

Chris Southcott
Department of Sociology
Lakehead University

August 1999
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