Newfoundland: Can You Dig It?

  • Benedicte Ingstad
    A Grand Adventure: The Lives of Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad and Their Discovery of a Viking Settlement in North America. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at
  • Anna Kearney Guigné
    The Forgotten Songs of the Newfoundland Outports: As Taken from Kenneth Peacock's Newfoundland Field Collection, 1951-1961. University of Ottawa Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Paul Chafe

If we are to take our instruction from the many televised advertisements for Newfoundland and Labrador tourism, Newfoundlanders and their culture are composed of equal parts hospitality and whimsy, untampered landscapes and plucky puffins, and, of course, Viking adventurers and Celtic fiddle music. Given the wide swath cut by such a culture, it is perhaps not surprising that an “omnibus” review can be written about two texts as disparate as A Grand Adventure and The Forgotten Songs of the Newfoundland Outports. Reading about the work of Norwegian-born explorer-archaeologist couple Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad and the work of Toronto-born ethnomusicologist Kenneth Peacock, one is reminded of philosopher F. L. Jackson’s slightly cynical response to the Newfoundland culture industry: “we had no idea we were a living cultural goldmine until the anthropologists came along and told us so.” Both texts are goldmines in their own right, and depict depths and sides of the Newfoundland character not examined in tourism commercials.

A Grand Adventure is not really about Newfoundland—it is anthropologist Benedicte Ingstad’s biography of her parents; the peak of their professional careers being their discovery of a one-thousand-year-old Norse settlement in L’Anse aux Meadows on Newfoundland’s northern tip. The work is thorough, engaging, and lovingly rendered. Ingstad details the early lives of her parents, their courtship, their lives and adventures, and the surprising amount of resistance the couple had to face, even into their old age, around the authentication of the Norse site and their rights to the accolades as the site’s discoverers.

Helge was eighteen years Anne Stine’s senior and he outlived her by four years, and this is probably why A Grand Adventure often depicts Anne Stine as a part of Helge’s life rather than the other way around. Helge is certainly an interesting character, and he trounced through the twentieth century with a man’s certainty that there was a part of the world out there he was destined to claim. Far more interesting was Anne Stine, who had to navigate the world differently. Witness her father’s toast at her wedding, in which it appears Anne Stine has achieved her life’s purpose while Helge could have done worse: “Eilif said to Anne Stine: ‘As a young girl he was your dream hero, who now as a mature woman, you have found your way back to.’ And to Helge he said, ‘Accept Anne Stine as she is. Flawless she isn’t, but I can say she is a worthy person and is dearly and completely in love with you.’” I found myself playing the archaeologist and digging through the text for more details of Anne Stine’s life—a life made all the more unknowable due to the fact she burned many of her letters and journals just before she died.

Those who like a little poesy in their prose will not find much to satisfy them in A Grand Adventure. Ingstad’s utilitarian language moves her parents expeditiously through the plot points of their lives. The same cannot be said of The Forgotten Songs of Newfoundland Outports. The text is presented largely as a scholarly source, but like that other great reference text, the Dictionary of Newfoundland English, it can be read as one would read a narrative, and provides enjoyable moments of the captured cadences and joie de vivre of its subjects. The field notes following the lyrics of “The Bellburn Tragedy” claim, “Following the performance of this song Clara Stevens commented, ‘What do you think of he? I made he.’” Of “Harry Dunn (The Hanging Limb)” it is noted, “For line one of stanza two, Mike Kent pronounces the word ‘once’ as ‘oncst’ or ‘wuncst.’” Perhaps most notable is the disparity between the singers and the songs they sing, which sometimes depict tragedies or crimes or failed loves but are described often as being delivered with great vigor and humour.

Guigné notes that Kenneth Peacock’s original text “is considered to be a bible for Newfoundland singers and a valuable resource for research,” but that the selections suffer because “his personal preferences frequently guided his publishing agenda.” In essence, those who pilfer Peacock’s text for songs of themselves are using the work of a researcher whose interest in the people he was recording was, according to Guigné, at times of only a “passing nature.” Guigné uses her considerable scholarly talents to present more information about these songs and their singers, and she does so without agenda. In that same spirit, my copies of both these texts now rest in strategic locations in my home, inviting visitors to dig into them and make their own discoveries.

This review “Newfoundland: Can You Dig It?” originally appeared in Eclectic Mix Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 234 (Autumn 2017): 163-164.

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