Imagining Newfoundland

Reviewed by Susie DeCoste

Nicole Lundrigan’s skilled and beautifully told novel Glass Boys depicts two families intimately related through proximity and history in a small isolated Newfoundland community. The novel revolves around a young boy’s buried secret that, once released, evokes such rage in his father that he murders a neighbouring man who wanders into the yard on a jovial bender. The narrative studies the impact of this event on members of the two families over two generations. While at the novel’s opening, the murderer Eli Fagan seems to be the root cause of the cascade of evil in the text, at its close, readers see him as just as much of a victim of his circumstances as the other characters. Lundrigan’s timing and ability to depict the evolution of the characters is exquisite, and her style is impressive. Each sentence is as carefully crafted as a line in poetry, and each propels the next one forward in rhythm and sound. This seductive style covers over any of the concerns readers might have about the rather stereotypical themes that readers have come to expect from literature of the East Coast—poverty, alcoholism, desperation—not to mention the aestheticized depiction of such rural experience.

In his debut novel, Jamie Fitzpatrick is seemingly self-conscious about how he portrays Newfoundland, Newfoundlanders, and Newfoundlanders playing hockey. This text does not have the same interest in metaphor, imagery, or language as Glass Boys. Instead, it is a plot-driven character study about an early-middle-aged man obsessed with his penis who languishes in the mundane. His only saving grace is his amateur hockey team in St. John’s. As much as the novel actively resists the kind of regionalism that would see Newfoundland in light of what one character calls “the rhetoric of Newfoundland transcendence, in which a people of mighty spirit prevail through shit weather and blundering history to find a deeper level of consciousness,” the novel is equally interested in entertaining the idea that Newfoundland might be such a place, and these characters such a people.

The novel’s critique of “the Newfoundland card” is strongest in its exploration of the men’s relationship to their hockey team, their CBC interview, and subsequent spot on Hockey Night in Canada. As characters are asked in the interview to consider their relationships to both hockey and Canada, their responses ebb and flow between resistance to the story of their team as special because of Newfoundland’s unique position in the country, or as ordinary because of the way they could be, as Ron MacLean in the novel says, “any hockey team in Canada, really.”

Unlike Fitzpatrick’s attempts to separate his novel from rural and folk traditions, Nico Rogers’ The Fetch situates itself firmly in a rural Newfoundland of the past. It is a superb collection of prose poems and vignettes about life in outport Newfoundland during the nineteenth century. Rogers has the wonderful ability to capture the nuances of distinct voices within the first few words of a piece. The Fetch presents itself as an archive; an aged black and white photograph is placed next to each prose poem, and readers are encouraged to imagine that the voice of the piece comes from or involves the person depicted. One of the most compelling is “Olive Oil,” about a premature baby. The scene seems sinister: the boldness and oddness of a palm-sized baby soaked in olive oil and kept in a hot pot near the fire seems like a Grimm’s fairy tale. The speaker and reader both curiously watch the scene unfold as a midwife cares for the baby; the photo of a thin little boy and a dirty dog placed before the poem reassure readers that the baby survives.

Like folk collectors of the early twentieth century, Rogers acknowledges his own ventures to Newfoundland to conduct research with extended family and in archives. The place is indirectly treated as a museum in need of preservation, and the people depicted in the prose vignettes are separated from many aspects of modern life. These relationships to folklore indicate that readers and writers still long for representations of such a folk character and mindset in regional literature. While Glass Boys and The Fetch relish the otherness, the isolation, and the social problems that have populated regional literature of the Atlantic provinces over the last century or longer, You Could Believe in Nothing comes close to a critique of these representations, but ultimately settles in ambivalence.

This review “Imagining Newfoundland” originally appeared in Indigenous Focus. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 215 (Winter 2012): 166-67.

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