The Shipping News

The Shipping News

Every few years, I re-read Annie Proulx’s classic novel, The Shipping News. It happens when I miss the East—family and friends. When I need to submerge myself in great writing and crave a dose of mellifluent literature. When I need to feel immersed in the sea and small town camaraderie.
But, just what makes this book so endearing? What thrills and feeds me?


If you’ve never heard of it, The Shipping News chronicles, not only the various ships, yachts, and boats that put into the small harbour of Killick-Claw on the barren Newfoundland shore, but also the story of Quoyle. A quoyle is a coil of rope, and here Proulx unravels the terrifyingly beautiful tale of Quoyle’s family: ancestors who were incestuous pirates, who dragged a house to a point on the mainland when they were driven off an island for their barbary. That Quoyle determination lives on in the gentle hero of this story, in the jutting chin, in an underdog who must find his way home.
Like Proulx, Quoyle is also a writer. An American, born in Brooklyn, he stumbles into a job at The Mockingburg Record. He has no idea how to write but wants to learn. It’s that or starve, and he has a friend who gets him an interview. But constant layoffs leave Quoyle hungry. And then he meets Petal Bear: “a month of fiery happiness. Then six kinked years of suffering” (13). Petal is more monster than woman.

“By day she sold burglar alarms at Northern Security, at night, became a woman who could not be held back from strangers’ rooms, who would have sexual conjunction whether in stinking rest rooms or mop cupboards. She went anywhere with unknown men. Flew to nightclubs in distant cities. Made a pornographic video while wearing a mask cut from a potato chip bag. Sharpened her eyeliner pencil with the paring knife, let Quoyle wonder why his sandwich cheese was streaking with green” (14).

Oh Petal. When she vanishes with a new stranger and takes along their two little girls, Bunny aged six and Sunshine aged four and half, Quoyle goes berserk.  Naturally. He loves his children, has raised them, cared for them, and now they’re gone. He calls the state police and his newfound aunt, Agnis Hamm. And then they get the news. Car wreck. Petal and the stranger are dead. But where are the kids? It turns out that Petal sold them for seven grand to a pedophile who produces homemade porn. Got a receipt from the pedo. Thank god. “Personal services.”
It’s the aunt that decides it’s time to go home—her hated brother and his wife have just died in a joint suicide pact. She’s lost the love of her life and Quoyle needs a family. So, at age thirty-six, unravelled by Petal’s brutal betrayal, Quoyle packs up his girls and heads to Newfoundland with the aunt. There, he gets a job working atThe Gammy Bird. He’s to cover car wrecks and the shipping news.
Real and honest, eccentric and larger-than-life, the crew atThe Gammy Bird are classic. Jack Buggit, British Nutbeam, Billy Pretty, even the crotch-scratching menace, Tert Card, is endearing in his own awful way. (“Face like cottage cheese clawed with a fork” (57).

Quoyle House

photo by D. Mark Laing, 2001, Flickr


The landscape is a character. If you’ve ever wanted to explore Newfoundland, this book will have you packing your bags. (But only in summer, mind.) Eleven foot snowdrifts rival my capacity to love all seasons. The green house on the point is a character too. It sits empty for forty-four years until Quoyle and the aunt decide to fix it up and move in. The aunt’s first act is to dump her brother’s ashes in the outhouse and piss on them. Enough said.

Cheering for the Underdog

How can you not cheer for Quoyle, bursting with love for his daughters? Learning that he’s so much more than a third-rate newspaper reporter? Building a new family on the rock?


Proulx manages to highlight several issues without sounding preachy or forced. She does this with impeccable style through Jack Buggit’s diatribes, conversations, and Quoyle’s inner musings, and his columns.
The economic situation in Newfoundland. Good friend, Dennis Buggitt, talks of going down the road to find work in Toronto. There’s no work for carpenters in Newfoundland and his dad doesn’t want him to fish. Fishing killed his brother. Quoyle fears that if Dennis takes his family to the city they’ll be lost forever. He should know.
The sad story of incest and sexual assault. The Gammy Bird publishes the names of sexual offenders. Thousands of them.
“Nutbeem, I got your S.A. stories running down my computer screen. You writing it by the yard, now? Seven, eight, nine—you got eleven sexual abuse stories here. We put all this in there won’t be room for the other news.”
“You ought to see my notebook. It’s an epidemic.”
Wouldn’t that be worth a read? Nutbeem strings the stories together with precision and flourish. Some names never make the paper. Ask the aunt.
Children with unique abilities. Wavey’s son Herry was born with Down’s Syndrome and there’s no support for him in the local school. So, she and Beety Buggit approach the government for funding to create a special class and provide support. Quoyle’s children, Bunny and Sunshine, are also unique. Both are expelled from nursery school in the states, yet thrive when embraced by family and community.
Fishing woes. There are so many foreign trawlers fishing in the outer reaches, there are no fish left for the locals. Then, there’s the danger of riding out a storm out on the sea. Ask Jack Buggit what happened to his son, Jessen.
Weather. Another character in this story, one who is most often the antagonist.
Oil tankers. We’ve been fighting oil pipelines in B.C. This column by Quoyle says it all:

Nobody Hangs a Picture of an Oil Tanker

Another common sight is black oil scum along miles of landwash, like the shoreline along Cape Despond this week. Hundreds of people watched Monday morning as 14,000 metric tons of crude washed onshore from a ruptured tank of the Golden Goose. Thousands of seabirds and fish struggled in the oil, fishing boats and nets were fouled. “This is the end of this place,” said Jack Eye, 87, of Little Despond, who, as a young man, was a dory fisherman with the schooner fleet (201).


Annie Proulx is a master of the craft and the writing is stunning. Proulx won a Pulitzer for this novel in 1994. I’ve really never seen anything like it: fragments of tight clipped poetic phrases, hard honest dialogue, sea-speak, words I’ve never seen, and dialect that makes us feel like we’re from the rock even if we’re not.

“The auditorium was jammed. A sweep of best clothes, old men in camphor-stinking black jackets that gnawed their underarms, women in silk and fine wools in the colors of camel, cinnabar, cayenne, bronze, persimmon, periwinkle, Aztec red. Imported Italian pumps. Hair crimped and curled, lacquered into stiff clouds. Lipstick. Red circles of rouge. The men with shaved jowls. Neckties like wrapping paper, child in sugar pink and cream. The puff of scented bodies, a murmur like bees over a red field” (276).

Myth & Metaphor

Each chapter is headed by a blurb and image from The Ashley Book of Knots. This 1944 work by Clifford W. Ashley inspired Proulx’s tale. The mix of folk tale and metaphor strengthens the story. Quoyle’s old, demented cousin ties knots to curse them and the house. Mixed with that are blurbs from The Gammy Bird, the local Killick-Claw paper where Quoyle discovers his talent for storytelling as he chronicles “The Shipping News”. This is why you can’t just watch the movie.
In 2001, Miramax released the film. Directed by Lasse Hallström (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules) it has all-star cast: Kevin Spacey as Quoyle, Judi Dench as the aunt, Kate Blanchett as Petal Bear, and Julianne Moore as Wavey (the tall silent woman who captures Quoyle’s heart in Killick-Claw.) As brilliant as the movie is—Annie Proulx and Robert Nelson Jacobs wrote the screenplay—it can’t replace the book.
When I was a kid, one of our family friends was Clyde Quinton, a man from Newfoundland who’d gone down the road. I remember that Clyde was a big gentle man who brought me a doll one year when I was sick. He was known for eating anything and saying simply: “food is food.” I often wonder what happened to Clyde. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve resurrected him in Quoyle.

Farley and Me

Farley and Me

Farley Mowat and I go back a long way. I didn’t know him personally but his stories taught me much of what I knew about the Canadian north when I was a kid. He was the quintessential Canadian writer, not just because he wrote about Canada, but because, like the land, his stories held, and continue to hold, such power. And he was from my time. When he mentions Eric the Red and Leif the Lucky, I smile. Those were the Vikings that fascinated me in third grade, when the bottom half of our notebooks were lined and the top left blank for a pencil sketch of the explorers. Long before Ragnar Lothbrok. It was a time when authors (white males) wrote with omniscient (godlike) viewpoints and felt no need for political correctness because it didn’t yet exist.

Lost in the Barrens

I spent the last few days reading myself to sleep with Lost in the Barrens. This is the book that teachers recommend to boys who don’t read, for within its pages lie adventures they will never experience any other way. I don’t know for sure, but I’ll bet that Gary Paulsen of Hatchet fame found Farley Mowat’s books when he was a kid.
Written in 1956, Lost in the Barrens was the third book Farley published, and it won the Governor General’s Award. This “survival story” details the adventures of an orphaned Toronto boy named Jamie Macnair and his Cree friend Awasin, who go hunting caribou with the Chipewyans and end up lost and fighting for their lives in the land of their tribal enemies, the Eskimos.
The two sixteen-year-old boys ride out a six-month mythic hero’s journey where they are tested step by step and page by page. They encounter:

  • rapids that destroy their canoe, matches, and most possessions
  • a stonehouse grave with Viking treasures (Farley tells its tale later in The Curse of the Viking Grave, 1967)
  • physical injuries and starvation
  • the sight of 250,000 caribou moving in long files down the valley and later an epic hunt
  • winter in the barrens and a blizzard that nearly kills them both
  • wild animals that they tame (a fawn and two lost sled dogs) and some that they don’t (wolverines and wolves)
  • snowblindness (the White Fire) that nearly drives them mad

At its heart is Awasin’s wisdom and Farley’s theme: “if you fight against the spirits of the north you will always lose.” Its echo resounds as the boys arrive home: “always travel with the forces of the land and never fight against them.”

The Forces of the Land.

I grew up in southern Ontario not far from where Farley spent his final days and some blue moons, the land calls me. I don’t know if it’s ancestral memory, karmic echoes, or simply the allure of home, but this land draws me like lodestone. A kind of madness ensues and I find myself on pricing Kawartha cottages where I went to university, or sorting through faded black and whites, or just visualizing the fields and trails where I rode my horse in Pickering.
SCAN0125My memories are forged on the flora and fauna of what I grew up calling the Eastern Woodlands. I understand the way of the land there; know the names of all the trees and plants; can still smell the odour of wax-pressed fall leaves and crave the sugar bush; remember the purple trillium, and the enormous oaks and elms that shaded us from summer sun so we could read beneath their boughs. And though I’ve lived in British Columbia for two decades I’ve never lost the lure of the lakeside cabin in the bush.
cabin in the bush
Like Yeats and Thoreau I long to cast off the city and “live deliberately” — until I think about mosquitoes and black flies, -30 Celsius and a metre of snow, and remember just how deliberate that is.
But still it calls. And, in part, I owe that calling to Farley Mowat.
Farley died in 2014 at the age of 92. He was still writing. Maclean’s magazine wrote such a stunning salute to Farley at the time of his death that I can only point the way.

In his hand he held a tiny sea shell, so old that when Awasin took it, it crumbled into dust between his fingers.
Jamie looked out over the broad valley to the dim blue line of the hills to the east. He spoke with awe. “Thousands, maybe a million years ago, this must have been one huge ocean, ” he said. “And these hills were just islands in it.”
Awasin was not surprised as Jamie expected him to be. “There’s a Cree legend about that,” he replied. “It tells of a time when the whole northern plains were all water and the water was filled with strange monsters.”


Thoreau’s September Moon

Thoreau’s September Moon

moon-1736608_1920What if one moon has come and gone with its world of poetry, its weird teachings, its oracular suggestions? So divine a creature, freighted with hints for me, and I not use her! One moon gone by unnoticed! Suppose you attend to the hints, to the suggestions, which the moon makes for one month,–commonly in vain,–will they not be very different from anything in literature or religion or philosophy?
Henry David Thoreau
7 Sept 1851

Eden Robinson and the Son of a Trickster

Eden Robinson and the Son of a Trickster


Eden Robinson

I met Eden Robinson in August 2010, when I attended a gathering of educators in Kamloops, B.C. I was working in Aboriginal Education at the time, and the English First Peoples 10-12 courses were coming available in our province. We gathered to search for understanding, share experiences, and explore ways to promote the courses in our communities.

English First Peoples 10-12

These are wonderful courses that feature authentic First Peoples texts and Principals of LearningFirst Peoples Principles-of-Learning-page-001 to fulfil the required secondary language course requirements. This means that a student can choose to experience First Peoples words and cultures, rather than the usual standbys in the book room like Lord of the Flies and Shakespeare. In communities where there is a significant Indigenous population, Elders enhance the experience, and the curriculum can be personalized and flexed into any number of learning experiences.

Monkey Beach

Eden Robinson joined the circle of provincial educators and spoke about her experiences. Her novel, Monkey Beach, is a recommended text for English First Peoples 12. I haven’t read it for a few years. It’s time for a reread and a review. It’s always good to know exactly where the risky bits are located, so in the Teacher Resource Guide, you’ll find the following page-numbered cautions:

throughout – underage smoking, profanity, fighting and violence
52 – drug use, violence
65 – violence (fight)
93 – underage drinking
108 – recalling experiences in a residential school
127-128 – verbal abuse
144 – disturbing imagery (describing a death)
156 – fighting
157 – joyriding
204 – drug use
210-211 – adultery, murder
220-221 – mockery and stereotypes of voodoo and witchcraft 230 – use of an Ouija board in a joking manner
251-251 – use of racial slurs and verbal abuse
255 – reference to abuse occurring in residential schools
258 – rape scene
272 – sexual content, disturbing imagery
286 – sexual content
293 – disturbing description of dead body
296 – drinking and drug use
365 – disturbing reference to an abortion
368-69 – disturbing imagery
369 – violence (murder)

MonkeyBeachAs always, Eden Robinson takes risks and opens windows. What do I love about this woman? She tells the truth.
She’s real.
Her characters are real.
And her delivery is real.
She’s also charming, witty, funny, and an amazing storyteller.
And she signed my copy of Monkey Beach with this:
Yowtz Wendy. May good spirits guide you.
Thank you, Eden Robinson. They do. And may good spirits continue to guide you too.

Son of a Trickster

Eden’s latest novel, Son of a Trickster, was released this year. You can read my review online at the Ottawa Review of Books.
son of a trickster