this is not a review: ‘the outport people’, by claire mowat

 

I have no idea where I got this book nor how it came to be included in my winter reading. I haven’t been talking to anyone about Newfoundland or outports and the only aquatic thing I’ve had on my mind recently is the Georgian Bay trout we get via a local fisherman. But there it was on my To Be Read pile so I casually opened it and wondered if (assumed that) Claire Mowat was related to Farley. She is. His wife. And it was with Farley that she lived in an outport on the southwest coast of Newfoundland from 1962 to 1970.

That pretty much right there is the story. Except for the details. Because life in an outport, apparently, is/was not heavy on drama, intrigue, or big-time action, but details… oh yes. Oodles.

An outport, by the way, is a small, isolated fishing community almost always without roads. Access to ‘anywhere’ is by boat only, which means during the LOOOONG winters… there is no access to ‘anywhere’. Due to their isolation these communities became a lifestyle unto themselves and in their own way thrived up until the 1970’s when outside influences entered into things and changed that lifestyle (not for the better), after which residents were given incentives to move inland. Many moved entire houses, floated them along the coast, because they had no money to buy new. And a way of life vanished.

Mowat was there, unknowingly, for what would be the last decade of that old-world outport life. She shares those remnants by being an excellent observer of nuance and keeping herself in or out of the story in all the right ways.

The Outport People is billed as a fictionalized memoir but it’s generally acknowledged that the only fictionalized bits are names and the occasional need for artistic license in order to make whole cloth of the ‘details’ and shape the story. Capturing the essence of this now lost way of life was, after all, the point of writing the book, something that’s clear from the reading. You can tell Mowat was truly in love with outport life and deeply respectful, in awe even, of the people who lived it.

What comes off as most extraordinary is that they, the residents, seemed oblivious to the increasingly modern world going on around them. More importantly, that’s pretty much the way they liked it. Most people never once in their life set foot outside their remote community and when then did, didn’t much like what they saw.

“In 1939, when war broke out, Ezra was one of the first men in Baleena to volunteer for service in the British Merchant Marine. He was then close to being fifty years old. He made many stormy crossings of the North Atlantic in submarine-hunted convoys, oiling machinery in the throbbing engine room of an ancient freighter. In the port cities of England he first encountered a way of life that was not the way of Baleena. He had never seen so many buildings so close to one another and he marvelled that human beings could bear to live like that. No one ever invited him into a house there, and the pubs and teashops he visited were damp, chilling places that numbed your feet and soul. He was never warm in England. Even the poorest house in Newfoundland, he reckoned, had a kitchen that was warmer than an English castle.”

Once that ‘modern world’ began creeping in via telephones and televisions in the mid to late 1960’s (but remained a rarity in most homes); when the post office was rebuilt and the postmaster of 35 years, who knew everyone by name, retired and was replaced with a key to your own P.O. box so that there was no one to speak with at what used to be a communal hub; when the occasional car began to appear and the fish began to disappear along with the fish plants along with the young people who could no longer hope to make a living, changing the cycle of families so that elderly parents who were once cared for by their kids were now left to grow old alone…  nothing was ever the same or as good in its maybe-it’s-crazy-but-it’s-worked-for-generations way.

But all this comes at the end of the book and the end of the decade. By which time Mowat has painted a picture of a strangely beautiful world… beautiful despite the fact that no one has more than a few dollars at any given moment,  no reliable medical services, no actual shops (back to no one has any money to buy anything), limited food sources, and despite the howling cold weather and brutal life of families who fish for a living or work for the fishing industry (and receive ridiculously little $$ for it)… despite all that and more, there’s a warmth, from the people themselves, from the way they share what little they have, looking in on neighbours to make sure they’re okay, the way children have ten thousand chores but are also free to run and play and discover their enormous yet tiny world because there is nothing else, not a single other thing, to distract them. There’s a complete absence of fear (other than what weather and sea and fishing companies pose).

And the colours! in this grey landscape where no deciduous trees exist… the bright shiny orange of kitchen walls, a red painted floor, yellow table, lime green chairs, a turquoise exterior. (The fishing boats, however, are all proudly dory buff. A kind of beige. Which makes no sense to me… I’d have thought it would be an advantage to have brightly painted boats.)

Mowat also notes cultural peculiarities, what is considered polite conversation, the way it’s absolutely normal for anyone to walk into anyone else’s house and sit down, almost always in the kitchen, and talk or not talk. The tradition of mummers, the difficulty of unions in environments made up almost entirely of closely linked families, what’s important to people, most of whom, have never been or even seen pictures of… anywhere else.

“The economic history of Newfoundland was a subject as taboo in their house as a discussion about religion in Belfast.”

The reason houses and roofs are specifically shaped and why windows rarely face the sea…

“The Roses’ children had long since left home and their house, which once had had two storeys, had been decapitated. Removing the second floor of a house was a common alteration made by elder couples since it reduced both the amount of fuel need to heat it and the housework needed to keep it clean.”

Oh, yes, and the sea.

The book feels like listening to a friend tell the story of living eight years in a place she was initially only curious about but came to deeply love… including, and maybe especially because of, the tough moments. And what’s more brilliantly beautifully Maritime than that?

(All of which aside, I’ve read that in some cases, residents of Newfoundland outports have not found the book as charming as mainlanders have, but that may be a case of being in the forest, unable to see the beauty of the trees. There were occasions Mowat outlines, where residents wondered why she was taking pictures of the water or the boats, things they found so ordinary. There is also the possibility that residents interpreted Mowat’s ‘details’ of outport life as being meant to be demeaning, when in fact it’s all about respect, admiration and awe, with more than a dollop of envy.)

“I wondered if anyone [on the mainland] ever stopped to think, as they laid the fillets in the pan, about the men who had caught them, or the people who had cut them and packed them, or of the risky voyage[s] made to bring all this fish to them. Only rarely do we think about the complexities of the production and distribution of food. It is so mindlessly easy to ignore the human involvement when we simply reach into a freezer.”

 

 

 

 

this is not a review: there is a season, by patrick lane

 
I can’t lie. Nor do I think I ought to. On reading the first chapter of Patrick Lane’s There is a Season I felt mostly annoyed. I didn’t think I’d make it to page fifty, which is my official limit…[page 100 is my un-official limit]. If I haven’t engaged in a book by then I close it and move along.

I can’t say what it was that bothered me, I just couldn’t get with the rhythm, I wasn’t paying attention.

When this happens, and despite the accompanying crankiness, something about the book occasionally compels me onward and prevents me from slamming it shut. This was not the case here. I walked away muttering about how I wasn’t in the mood for epiphanies in the form of raindrops. But the next day I picked it up again. It was a library copy so nothing would have been simpler than to take it back from whence it came—but those raindrops had gotten into my head and when I opened it up the second time to some random page, I read this:

“I don’t know why I confuse myself in the world when all I need to do is spend a few moments in this gentle space.”

I kept reading, pages and passages in no particular order.

“I measure friendship by those who are the friends of spiders and those who are not.”

“The drenched garden glows like the womb must to an unborn child.”

“What I call silence is not the absence of sound but the presence of the garden when it is not weighted down by traffic noise and talk.”

“My quest has always been to find what I could not leave.”

“A green frog does not sit on a red geranium unless he’s gone a little mad.”

“There are times I want to be in the second or third person… It’s simpler to be a fiction.”

“We break our path when fear tells us to live.”

** 

And then I started again, at the beginning.

—It’s springtime in the Okanagan and the author is a boy. We meet him as he stands “… among yellow glacier lilies and…windflowers…the western anemone, their petals frail disks of trembling clotted cream.”

This is the opening. What, exactly, about that is cranky-making?? I’ll tell you what: nothing. Whatever my initial reading mood was, I’m thrilled it passed.

It’s a book about a garden in flux and the man who is putting it [and his life] to rights; about the connection of man to nature. Of an ornamental tree, he says “Their leaves funnel the rain, and the water runs down one leaf, falls to the next and the next, miniature waterfalls in a stream until the last and outer leaf drops the water where the feeder roots drink.”

It’s a book of poetry in the form of prose. Or vice versa. It’s a meditation. You read it slowly, and maybe that’s what was wrong on my first attempt. My speed setting was off.

“That is beauty, to stop a moment and watch the endless play of light on water and stone and see how the living things of the garden come to drink or just to gaze as I do now at the surface of the pond.”

The book is also about sobriety although drinking is rarely mentioned. It’s Lane’s senses that are sober for the first time in forty-five years and so the reader is privy to the perspective of not only a great poet, but of someone who’s been issued a set of fresh eyes, ears, skin and taste buds.

“The drenched garden glows like the womb must to an unborn child.”

51aac9pD90L__SX200_There are many references to rain and mist and dew, pools of water, as if the booze has been replaced by more useful forms of liquid, ones that help him think—and remember—more clearly.

The book is divided between the present day Victoria garden and the past: childhood, parents, marriage, failures, joy, sadness and one especially incredible scene where he returns with his now elderly, unemotional and extremely reluctant mother to the old homestead; it’s near the end of the book and is one of the best passages I’ve read anywhere for its power to convey, essentially, a whole world, the now and the then, in a few sentences. Perfectly placed.

I’ve since returned the library copy.
And purchased one of my own.

savoury sentences from several sources — part 1

 

“A single moment, a day, can shift into something profound by the reading of a single perfect sentence at the perfect time.” ~ Matilda Magtree, aka me

“The boy was said to be a cousin of Kathleen Burnham and was up from New Hampshire, working at the sawmill, though he was no bigger and looked no older than an adolescent sugar maple.” ~ from Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout (Random House. 2008)

“Physical pain, like a poultice, has a way of drawing out what is hidden in the heart.” ~ from the essay ‘A Container of Light’, by Lisa Martin-Demoor, TNQ, Fall 2011

“What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one’s heroic ancestors.” ~ from Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James W. Loewen (The New Press, 1995)

“She sits at the edge of the narrow cot, neatly made and covered tautly with a white embroidered blanket, the kind that, if you run your hand over it with your eyes closed, feels like a skin disease, tiny white embroidered circles that pop up like pimples.” ~ from ‘A Well-Imagined Life’, in the collection Can You Wave Bye Bye, Baby?, by Elyse Gasco (McClelland & Stewart, 2001)

“It was the kind of party where no one ate the chicken skin.” ~ from The Forgotten Waltz, by Anne Enright (McClelland & Stewart, 2011)

“Because she is ten years old under an open blue sky, because there is not reason ever to arrive anywhere, because she has never felt exactly this way before—this loose in the world, this capable of escape.” ~ from The Juliet Stories, by Carrie Snyder (House of Anansi, 2012)

“Jake and I grew up without a mother, which wasn’t that bad, although we ate a lot of boiled peas.” ~ from the story ‘After Summer’, by Alice Peterson (The Journey Prize Stories,  2007)

“It was no more than a peep, the sound you might make if a butterfly lands on your hand.” ~ from the story ‘A Bolt of White Cloth’, by Leon Rooke

“There’s aggression even in the way they kiss each other so flagrantly, like they’re trying to suck the other’s gums out, like an old horse chasing a lost scrap of ginger nut biscuit down the palm of your hand and up your sleeve.” ~ from Malarky, by Anakana Schofield(Biblioasis, 2012)

 

savoury sentences, part 2

because it’s sunday

“…Wake early one Sunday and smell the person sleeping next to you. Do it. Lean over. The inside of the neck will do, just below the ear. Take a deep breath. The knowledge of this scent is lodged in the deepest part of your brain.

“Breathe deeply, if only to remind yourself of why you are where you are, doing what you’re doing.

“Now go into the kitchen. Throw two eggs into a bowl with a cup of milk and a cup of flour. Add a quarter teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of melted butter. Mix until smooth, but don’t overdo it.

“Pour the batter into buttered muffin tins, filling the cups no more than half-full. Put the tins in a cold oven. Turn on the heat to 450F. After fifteen minutes, turn the oven down to 340F. Wait for fifteen minutes more.

“This recipe comes from the Fannie Farmer Baking Book by Marion Cunningham. It’s an important book, with clear recipes and much new thinking. For example, prior to Marion, popovers, were always started in a hot oven. This is a small thing, but one which changed my life.

“While you’re changing yours, make some coffee and squeeze a couple of oranges. Do want you want with a pear or a pineapple. Get a tray ready to take back to bed.

“Now open the oven. It will make you smile. They don’t call these things popovers for nothing. They look like little domes, golden brown and slightly crispy on the outside.”

~From Comfort me with Apples, by Joe Fiorito (McClelland & Stewart, 2000)

(p.s. If you like this, here’s more from the same book.)