‘The land God gave to Cain’ was how Jacques Cartier, sailing under patronage of the French king in 1534, described what came to be Canada’s province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Cain is exactly the kind of character who interests Annie Proulx, and Cain’s home turf is the natural setting for her fiction. Cain more or less shows up, under the name of Loyal Blood, as the protagonist of her first novel Postcards. (Blood is a Vermont dairy farmer who accidentally kills his girlfriend and has to spend the rest of his life on the lam, keeping in tenuous touch with his hard-scrabble family by sending postcards.) The land God gave to Cain is the site of Proulx’s second novel, The Shipping News.
When Cartier was moved to this Biblical metaphor, he was slipping southward down the Strait of Belle Isle, a narrow sleeve of arctic ocean, Labrador on his starboard side, the island of Newfoundland to port (not that he realised it was an island at the time). He saw ice barrens, icebergs, fog as thick as eiderdown quilts, granite cliffs, rock coves guarded by treacherous sunkers, occasional representatives of the Micmac tribe and of the Beothuks (now extinct, courtesy of European civilisation’s assorted diseases and discontents). Wherever he cast his eye: harshness. The history of the human settlement of that great hulk of fissured, pre-Cambrian rock that juts into the North Atlantic is one of harsh times getting steadily harsher. As I write, headlines in the Toronto Globe & Mail promise worse to come:
ATLANTIC FISHERY DEALT NEW BLOW. SHUTDOWNS COULD LAST TILL END OF DECADE
‘The [groundfish] stocks are in the worst shape ever recorded,’ Herbert Clarke, head of the Fisheries Resource Conservation Council, said yesterday ... The Council has recommended that the fishing quotas for 1994 be cut by 60 per cent from the 1993 level ... quotas for cod and haddock will be only 5 per cent of what fishermen were allowed to catch in 1988 ... Mr Clarke acknowledged that scientists don’t know whether or when major cod and haddock stocks will recover ... Robert Hache of the Association des Pêcheurs Professionels Acadiens said that the conclusions in the report are shocking even to fishermen used to declining stocks. ‘We see something that has never happened before in the northwest Atlantic,’ he said. ‘We have a total collapse, an ecological catastrophe of unknown proportions.’
As a character in The Shipping News remarks:
Jesus! You think it can’t get worse, it gets worse! This business about allocating fish quotas as if they was rows of potatoes you could dig ... They’ve made the inshore fishermen just like migrant farm workers. All we do is harvest the product. Moves from one crop to another, picks what they tells us. Takes what they pays us. We got no control over any of the fishery now ... We lives by rules made somewhere else by sons a bitches don’t know nothin’ about this place.
‘Merde,’ as Robert Hache of the Association des Pêcheurs Professionels Acadiens might well have said to the Globe & Mail reporter, for they still fish in both French and English off the Newfoundland shores; they always have. Time was when the cod supplies seemed limitless. The first letter ever sent from the New World to the Old, so far as is known, was dispatched from the harbour of St John’s, Newfoundland, on 3 August 1527. It was penned by John Rut, captain of the Mary of Guildford, and sent, courtesy of another vessel, to King Henry VIII. It was an espionage report on the French competition, and recorded that Rut found 14 fishing vessels already in St John’s harbour: two Portuguese, and 12 French.
After centuries of skirmishing, of treaties, of trade-offs that led the French (the French French) to vacate their traditional settlements on the ‘French Shore’ of Newfoundland and to restrict themselves to the two tiny islands of St Pierre and Miquelon (just 25 miles off the Newfoundland coast), there are still coast-guard stand-offs that pit Canadian fishermen against Breton fishermen, English against French, Canadian French against French French (and when I speak of the Canadian French, I mean, in this context, Acadiens, not Québécois; for French Canadians are not at all a monolithic group, but contain divisions as sharp and as fractious as those between Australians of Irish descent and those of English). Perhaps Jacques Cartier had a premonition of what was to come: The Land God Gave to Cain Still Raises Cain Half a Millennium Later. Was this any kind of site for Utopia, for Acadia, for the founding of New France?
Quoyle, protagonist of The Shipping News and newspaper hack in an outport town – a town, that is, which can’t be reached by road – would have sympathised with Cartier. Quoyle is given to thinking about himself in tabloid headlines. He has lived always with ‘the familiar feeling that things were going wrong’ – the very essence of life in a province which gets more than its fair share of gloomy headlines: Sex Abuse Scandal in Newfoundland Orphanage; Fishery Plants Close; Fish Quotas Cut Back; Highest Unemployment Rates in Country; Lowest Educational Levels; Oil Refinery Closes; Mass Exodus to Jobs in Toronto; More Newfoundlanders in Toronto than in Newfoundland; Death Scandal as Innu Children Sniff Petrol in Unheated Shacks; Appalling Poverty on Reserves. Annie Proulx’s achievement in The Shipping News is to capture this world with extraordinary precision, to lure the reader into the passions of a seafaring culture; to convey a visceral sense of its hardships, its poverty, its gallows humour; to expose its murky, violent, incest-ridden underside without either sensationalising or trivialising, and to endow the almost inarticulate outport people with quiet grandeur.
So how does it come about that a novel which reveals such an intimate knowledge of Atlantic Canada was written by an American woman from Vermont? Annie Proulx, in fact, is of French Canadian stock. Like Quoyle, she is returning to the country of her ancestors, and she brings to it a sharply observant eye and ear. Her protagonist – a huge, physically ungainly, emotional shambles of a man – lives in a small, blighted town in upstate New York. When we meet him, he has moved all the way from being a distributor of vending-machine candy to a hack reporter for the Mockingburg Record, a rag that specialises in ‘fawning anecdotes of local business people’. He marries, drowning in ‘witless love’, bar-room porno queen Petal Bear, who gives him ‘a month of fiery happiness’ then ‘six kinked years of suffering’ and two daughters, Bunny and Sunshine, in whom she takes little interest. She runs off with another man after selling the children to a pornographic moviemaker, but in the act is killed in a car crash. It is a measure of Proulx’s old-fashioned storytelling power that the reader is willing to overlook the crude and manipulative convenience of this death. In the wake of such gothic traumas, Quoyle flees (or retreats) with his rescued children to the ancestral island: ‘a place he had never been nor thought to go’.
Thus, quite early on in the novel, he finds himself back in the remote village of Killick-Claw, lair of his forebears, a place that has only recently shed outport status. Times have changed. ‘Drive around,’ he is advised, ‘and learn all four of our roads.’ The family home, empty for 40 years, still stands derelict, tethered by cables to bare rock, whence it had been moved from across the frozen bay by a small army of Quoyles pulling it on sled runners.
Newfoundland history is replete with instances of those sons-of-bitches in Ottawa closing down outer outports (official reasons of inaccessibility to education and medical services; public health issues of unheated huts without sewage) and forcibly relocating the inhabitants. There are ghost villages all over the place on outer bays and islands, and there are still people who return to them in the brief summer months, lovesick for place. It is difficult, really, for fiction to outdo Newfoundland, where a ‘blow’ can push empty freight cars off railway tracks, and where freezing rain is called a ‘glitter storm’, and towns bear names such as Gaff Topsail, Sops Arm, Come-by-Chance, Seldom-Come-By, Heart’s Ease ant Dildo. (Swift would have loved the place. Gulliver should have been shipwrecked off Joe Batt’s Arm.) The last time I was in St John’s, a polar bear, stranded on an ice floe, drifted into the harbour, stepped ashore, and wandered dazed about the city streets. This was in spring.
Quoyle, back in the bosom of the family, finds madness and incest, and learns that the Quoyles were ‘a savage pack ... halfwits and murderers’, with a professional standing as ‘wrackers’ – men who, using lanterns, lured ships onto rocks for the purpose of looting the wrecks. He gets a job at the local newspaper, the Gammy Bird. The plot line hereafter is simple to the point of sentimentality: misfit returns to roots where eccentricity is normal; nightmares of two disturbed little girls peter out; urban loser finds fulfilment in harsh eden; new love arrives on tentative gull’s feet; tide of familial happiness seeps in. But although the narrative formula may be trite (Little House on the Prairie Goes to Newfoundland; The Waltons Put Out to Sea), this energetic, anarchic, quirky novel is not.
We are seduced, in part, by the characters; in part by the writer’s intelligence and wit (one character, an expat Brit, names his boat Borogrove because it’s ‘a bit mimsy’); also by the sheer extravagance of arcane detail: on how to gut cod, how to build a fishing dory, how to make seal-flipper pie, how to survive outport coffee (‘a weak but acid brew with undertones of cod’), on the names and uses of nautical knots, the finer points of ship upholstery, the history of the Plimsoll Line, on how to navigate in fog. We also learn much about how to run a successful newspaper in the outports. The Gammy Bird is the inspired creation of Jack Buggit, a hands-on but also largely absentee publisher who spends as much time as possible out in his dory or tending his lobster pots:
I been running Gammy Bird for seven years now, and the circulation is up to 13 thousand, gaining every year. All along this coast. Because I known what people want to read about ... Now there’s Nutbeem writes the foreign, provincial and national news, gets his stories off the radio and rewrites. Also covers sexual abuse. He can’t hardly keep up. We run two or three S.A. stories every week, one big one on the front page, the others inside ... Now what I want you to do. I want you to cover local car wrecks, write the story, take pictures. We run a front-page photo of a car wreck every week, whether we have a wreck or not. That’s our golden rule. No exceptions. Tert has a big file of wreck pictures. If we don’t have a fresh one, we have to dip into his file. But we usually have a couple of good ones ... And the shipping news. Get the list from the harbourmaster. What ships come into Killick-Claw, what ones go out. There’s more every year. I got a hunch about this ...
Jack Buggit talks ‘like a rivet gun’ and that is how Annie Proulx writes. One could argue, I suppose, for organic necessity, for an intentional echoing of laconic outport speech and the rhythms of tabloid headlines, but ultimately the staccato rhythms and stylistic tics prove irritating. Proulx will never use a compound sentence when three simple ones will do. She will never use a simple sentence when three end-stopped phrases, punctuated as sentences, will serve. She seems to have an aversion to the definite article and a decided taste for perfervid imagery:
It was spring. Sodden ground, smell of earth. The wind beat through twigs, gave off a greenish odour like struck flints. Coltsfoot in the ditches; furious dabs of tulips stuttering in gardens. Slanting rain. Clock hands leapt to pellucid evenings.
In the teeth of these stylistic irritations the book won me over. It also sent me back to one of the few powerful books about Newfoundland that I know of, Claire Mowat’s The Outport People, published in 1983. Turning again to the earlier book, I stumbled across a slew of startling correspondences.
Mowat’s ‘fictional memoir’ of Dog Cove is dominated by two families, one of which is the Quayles, though it is the other family, the Pointings, who remind of Proulx’s Quoyles, and who have a derelict house ‘standing apart like an outcast’ as does the house on Quoyle’s Point. Both books have a wealthy Scotch-drinking family of yacht-owners with pedigreed names (Mowat’s Drakes, Proulx’s Melvilles) who are sublimely unaware of the hardships of those who serve them; both have a house towed from one outport to another; both have a boat-smashing riot. There’s no question of plagiarism here, the styles being so radically different. Nevertheless, the similarities are striking enough that it seems certain The Outport People lies behind The Shipping News, a shape seen through fog, as it were. I suspect Proulx is not conscious of her submerged memory of Mowat; if she were, she would either have acknowledged the earlier book, or would not have had Quoyles bumping dories with Quayles.
In any case, Proulx comes by her knowledge of hard living the hard and honest way. ‘I liked the rough side of things, always,’ she confesses in a recent interview. She lives in a remote part of Vermont in a house that she built herself. Having become, last year, the first woman ever to win the PEN/Faulkner Award (for Postcards) and having just won both the Irish Times International Fiction Prize and the US National Book Award for The Shipping News, she may he the hottest new thing in town. Fifty-eight years old, a veteran of three marriages, she has three grownup sons, an unfinished PhD (thesis jettisoned) in Renaissance economic history, and a slew of earlier non-fiction works on such topics as how to build your own fences and walkways, how to live by bartering, how to make cider, how to live by organic gardening.
It is easy to imagine Annie Proulx in her almost-sixties raising Cain and living off land and sea in Newfoundland. For readers who’ve never had the good fortune to see the splendidly austere landscape God gave to the fratricidally-inclined, let me recommend the late-blooming triumph of The Shipping News.