Read Your Way Through Newfoundland

Credit…Raphaelle Macaron

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In relative terms, Newfoundland is very recently domesticated.

Disillusioned by New York’s urban rat race at the beginning of the 20th century, the American artist Rockwell Kent retreated to this North Atlantic island in search of someplace feral and unpredictable, on the margins of human civilization. He found it.

At the time, Newfoundland was a largely oral culture of storytellers and singers and sauce-boxes, living in small villages along thousands of miles of rocky coastline. Almost all of them were descendants of the English and Irish who emigrated to, as we say here, “prosecute” the cod fishery and the spring seal hunt in the 17th and 18th centuries. (The significant Indigenous constituent in our tiny genetic pool was generally hidden or denied.) Three hundred years of isolation in a ruthlessly capricious environment had created incomprehensible accents, and a culture of self-reliance, congenital generosity and bald fatalism.

A lot has changed since the First World War broke out, and Kent was deported as a potential German spy. Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949 and became increasingly civilized. Roads and schools and hospitals were built. American television colonized the airwaves. A college established in 1925 was elevated to a fully fledged university and began spitting out writers at a dizzying pace.

For all that, not every feral gene has been bred out of the place. You can enjoy craft beer and good coffee and first-rate restaurants now. But the ocean’s wilderness and the North Atlantic’s mercurial weather predominate. And a unique social and cultural history still set Newfoundlanders a little ways apart from anyone else you’ve ever met.

What should I read before I pack my bags?

If you want a sense of how the island’s history has shaped the Newfoundland character, you won’t do better than “Death on the Ice,” Cassie Brown’s seminal book on the Great Newfoundland Sealing Disaster of 1914. One hundred and thirty-two sealers were trapped on the Labrador ice floes in a vicious snowstorm that spring. Seventy-eight of them froze to death during the 54-hour ordeal.

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First published in 1972, “Death on the Ice”has the emotional intensity and high-wire suspense of a thriller. Brown uses testimony from an official inquiry and her own interviews with survivors to recreate the sealers’ apocalyptic suffering, and calls out a feudal version of capitalism that makes Charles Dickens’s London seem quaint. But the book is, ultimately, a testament to the strength, selflessness and will of the men who survived the nightmare.

On a less tragic note, I’d suggest Wayne Johnston’s memoir “Baltimore’s Mansion.”American readers might know Johnston for his depiction of Joey Smallwood, the politician who brought Newfoundland into the Canadian confederation, in his 1999 novel, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams.” “Baltimore’s Mansion” was published shortly after and covers some of the same ground from a more personal perspective. The vote to abandon self-government was razor-thin and set husbands and wives, friends and neighbors at odds. “Baltimore’s Mansion” uses the Johnston family as a window onto the deeply divisive campaign, which altered Newfoundland irrevocably.

What books or authors should I bring along with me?

If you’re going to be stranded on this island, bring “The Dictionary of Newfoundland English.” I kid you not: Running to some 700 pages, the D.N.E. records the myriad ways Newfoundlanders have adapted, jerry-rigged or outright invented words, phrases, lore and proverbs to create a language that reflects and explains the place they live. Landwash. Sunkers and tuckamore. Bedlamer. Silver thaw. Tickleace and tinker and turr. Bawks and hagdowns and shags. Jesus birds. Thunder mug. A dwy of snow. A faffering wind. Kinkcorn. Confloption. Sish ice, slob ice, nish ice. Spudgel. Duckish. There is no better introduction to the idiosyncratic relationship Newfoundlanders have with their native tongue, and the ways in which social and physical realities shape how people speak. Glorious.

Also, anything by Lisa Moore. A master of the short story (her “Selected Short Fiction” is a great starting point), she’s also written some classic St. John’s novels. Alligator, her first, explores how class, politics and money shape the lives of townies from all walks of life.

If you want an even grittier look under the hood of the capital city offered up in tourist campaigns, Megan Gail Coles’s Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club,” Joel Thomas Hynes’s We’ll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night or Eva Crocker’s All I Ask will do the job.

If I have no time for day trips, what books could take me there instead?

Michael Winter’s The Big Why is a fictional account of Rockwell Kent’s time in Brigus at the beginning of the 20th century. A completely original exploration of the artistic temperament and of the possibilities of love, the book is also a note-perfect portrayal of the insular, outrageously flahoolic (D.N.E.: generous) and unforgiving nature of Newfoundland’s outport communities. One of my all time favorites.

And then, of course, there’s Labrador, which is another world altogether. To date, Labrador’s literature consists mostly of accounts of frontier life. Elizabeth Goudie’s “Woman of Labrador”is an unadorned record of life in a trapping family in the 1920s and ‘30s. Dillon Wallace’s narrative of the disastrous Hubbard expedition, “The Lure of the Labrador Wild,” is a classic of the (mis)adventure genre. John Steffler’s terrific novel, The Afterlife of George Cartwright,” is one of the few books to take on the savage grandeur of Labrador in fiction, and, in Cartwright, it offers up a character almost as large and avid as the place itself.

The voices of the Indigenous peoples who have lived in Labrador for thousands of years are, as elsewhere, underrepresented in the literature. Them Days magazine, which exists to preserve the oral history of Labrador, is one place to find part of that community’s story.

What literary pilgrimage destination would you recommend?

There’s an unwritten rule in St. John’s that a writer is required to spend at least 25 percent of any arts grant at The Ship. Or maybe that’s just the average, which makes it feel like a rule.

A nondescript pub off a steep lane between Duckworth and Water Streets, The Ship is the closest thing the city has to an underground literary landmark. There’s no plaque yet, but I can attest that Nobel Prize-winner Seamus Heaney relieved himself at one of the urinals in the men’s. Michael Ondaatje spent a night on the dance floor during a show by a local ska/funk/reggae band. Everyone from Daniel Lanois to Bonnie “Prince” Billy to Sarah Harmer to Fred Eaglesmith to a 10-member Bulgarian choir has performed at the tiny venue. Hundreds of writers, local and otherwise, have read from its stage. And the bar itself makes cameo appearances in dozens of poems, stories, novels and songs.

Stop in for a pint. You never know who might show up.

Michael Crummey’s Newfoundland Reading List

  • “Death on the Ice,” Cassie Brown

  • “Baltimore’s Mansion” and “The Colony of Unrequited Dreams,” Wayne Johnston

  • “The Dictionary of Newfoundland English”

  • “Selected Short Fiction” and “Alligator,” Lisa Moore

  • “Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club,” Megan Gail Coles

  • “We’ll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night,” Joel Thomas Hynes

  • “All I Ask,” Eva Crocker

  • “The Big Why,” Michael Winter

  • “Woman of Labrador,” Elizabeth Goudie

  • “The Lure of the Labrador Wild,” Dillon Wallace

  • “The Afterlife of George Cartwright,” John Steffler

  • “Them Days” magazine

Michael Crummey was born and raised in Newfoundland; his writing, which includes the novels “Sweetland” and “The Innocents,” explores the local landscape, folklore and history and has been published in a dozen countries. “Passengers,” his latest poetry collection, will be available in August.

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