this is not a review: ‘newfoundland, journey into a lost nation’, by michael crummey and greg locke

So very happily stumbled over this book recently. Published in 2004, the ‘lost nation’, in the title refers of course to the loss of the cod some twelve years earlier, which, in his opening essay, Michael Crummey likens to Saskatchewan losing its grain, or the Arctic its snow. In one short but powerful passage, Crummey takes us back to the moment fishermen were given the news of the moratorium in 1992. (They were asked to sit in a separate room and watch a video of John Crosbie speaking to *invited* guests and media in the next room, behind locked doors.) Crummey offers an account of the lead up to this “public relations disaster” and the subsequent fallout.51P3DRC75FL._SX374_BO1,204,203,200_

He writes about the fishermen before that day, memories from his father and grandfather being especially poignant. And he writes about Newfoundland since that day: the leaving of so many people, the collapse of communities, lost skills, the tourism that is both a boon and a sadness as it turns traditions into commodities… as well as a surge in arts and the forming of new communities.

It’s all quite dandy until something starts to feel ‘missing’. Oh, yeah. Women. What he doesn’t write about is the women. There’s not a sliver of anything from their perspective in the loss of this ‘nation’. And as much as I enjoyed Crummey’s essay, and the photos by Greg Locke – beautiful, unsentimental shots of, well, men, mostly – there’s no getting away from the fact that, not only something, but much, is weirdly absent from this story. While the devastation of the cod certainly affected the boys who made a living on the water, I suspect not all was trifle and joy at home. I imagine the women had some feelings on the subject, that their lives, too, were affected.

I mean if we’re going to include a shot of men at a kitchen party, then there’s room for more than the ‘fellows and fish’ side of things.

And yet, for some reason, Crummey has chosen to tell, and Locke has chosen to shoot, a Newfoundland pretty much devoid of gals (who certainly don’t involve themselves in the fish business according to this telling) (not sure that’s entirely accurate, but never mind). Worse, though, it’s a story told as if there’s no one inside those houses, those canneries, no one hanging that laundry, raising those children, working at the bank, the grocery store, putting food on tables with less and less money. The guys are fishing. We get that. They’re mending nets. Then they’re not fishing. They’re angry, sad, lost. All very well conveyed in both word and portrait. But what are the women of the lost nation doing, thinking, feeling, while their men are out to sea for all those generations… and then are suddenly not?

I’m guessing that having them lolling about the house in all their misery shook up those girl lives something serious.

There are 101 photos.

Of these, 68 feature men or boys, only males.

21 are un-peopled land or seascapes.

10 are a mix of both male and female, adults and children.

12 feature women or girls only.

While twelve out of 101 is better than nothing (although it’s very close to nothing), the text that accompanies the ‘female’ pictures adds insult to injury by focusing on things other than the female, such as the one where a woman looks at an iceberg (text refers to iceberg alley); or the woman and child walking on beach (text refers to sewage plant); a girl and her pony (text about ponies originally used in mines and how they almost became extinct). Another of the precious twelve shows an elderly woman smoking at a bingo table. Still another has a winsome wench staring out to sea clad for some reason in a long Victorian dress and cap.

There’s a shot of a guy selling jam from the back of his car. I suspect we’re meant to understand that the he’s been reduced to this. Sad, yes. But who made that jam? Did he make it? If not, where’s the shot of the person who did? Let’s see sweat dripping off a brow as that jam cooks in a hot, tiny kitchen. Let’s see that brow being wiped with an old apron because maybe the person making that jam is suffering too, doesn’t have a lot, doesn’t ask for a lot, is merely loyal, merely living the cards they’ve been dealt.

Where’s that story?

And what about “the girl” referred to on page ten (Crummey’s quotation marks), who slept on the other side of a makeshift curtain in a cabin full of fishermen. Crummey, here, is writing about the chaps (including his grandfather) who went to fish along the Labrador coast, difficult to get to, with even more difficult conditions once they arrived.

“Each spring he hired a crew of three or four… along with “the girl” – sometimes as young as thirteen – who cooked for the men and helped clean and cure the fish…. It was rough living and rough work…. The skipper had his own room downstairs, while the crew usually slept under the attic eaves in the loft, on mattresses stuffed with wood shavings. The girl required a room to herself, though this often consisted of nothing more than a blanket hung between her and the men.”

The next lines refer to outhouses being too awkward to construct so they used the shoreline and tides instead as their ‘facilities’. From there immediately to vermin and blackflies. The girl is but a mention, never to be mentioned again. We have no idea why a child would be sent to cook and clean for these men and why must it be a girl? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to send a boy so as to learn the trade? One wonders what more “the girl’s” story involves? Her own hardships beyond vermin and blackflies perhaps.

Where’s that  story in this lost nation?

Some years ago I sat for an hour or so on a hill on the eastern shore of the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland. I watched a few boats come in or go out and I revelled in the scenery, but mostly I stared at the houses in this small coastal community and wondered about the women who ‘manned’ them in all weathers, literal or metaphoric.

And then I wrote this tiny thing, called ‘Petty Harbour’:

They hide in square wooden houses,
the women of the boatmen, leaning
on each other’s shadows, thighs
pressed together against the fog
until—all but one returns; thighs
loosen for a moment before they are
alone, immersed in salt and gravy,
hiking cloud paths for berries to send
with him next time; yet for the one
whose boatman doesn’t return—
thighs loosen and life begins.


Too often the female side of the story, or the view from there, is considered women’s literature and dismissed as something minor. In the case of Newfoundland: Journey into a Lost Nation, and in the opinion of this ‘woman’, an excellent telling from a narrow perspective weakens the overall experience of the book.

savoury sentences from several sources, part 3


“I imagined her at her closet, deciding what you’d wear to go learn something about your child that just might break your heart.”

from We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,  by Karen Joy Fowler


“She said it with just a hint of bitterness in her voice, enough that I could taste it, like a squeeze of lemon in a glass of milk.”

— from ‘Serendipity’ in the collection Flesh & Blood,  by Michael Crummey


“She had no children and beautiful shoes in a range of colours, and each pair had its own matching bag.”

— from ‘The Green Road’,  by Anne Enright


“It surprises me that he could have seen any delight in Toby Whittaker, an exhausted-looking young man who, after shaking hands, said not a word from first to last, but whose silence emitted a faint air of disaster and gin.”

— from ‘A Serious Widow’,  by Constance Beresford-Howe


“Recently, everything around me felt familiar yet amiss, like the first time you ride in the back seat of your own car.”

— from  Let the Northern Lights Erase your Name,  by Vendela Vida


“The smoke in the dark looked like a dove that whispered the future to saints in paintings.”

— from Lullabies for Little Criminals,  by Heather O’Neill


“Home was something that you could fit into a suitcase and move in a taxi for ten dollars.”

— from Lullabies for Little Criminals,  by Heather O’Neill


“The mixture of cafe au lait and impatience was producing an exquisite vibration.”

— from Still Life,  by Louise Penny


“The problem is he married a Pole. Turns out she doesn’t know her arse from her elbow. Doesn’t even keep Keen’s mustard on hand.”

— from Are you Ready to be Lucky?,  by Rosemary Nixon


“That was the trouble with grown-ups: they always wanted to be the centre of attention, with their battering rams of food, and their sleep routines and their obsession with making you learn what they knew and forget what they had forgotten.”

— from Mother’s Milk,  by Edward St. Aubyn


“They were not merely sentences but compressed moments that burst when you read them.”

— from the essay, ‘Thank you, Esther Forbes’, by George Saunders


More sentences here 710px-Woman_reading,_1930s

and here.



the (anti) shopping list


Here is my not-quite-but-almost annual list for them wot don’t especially like ‘stuff’… Also, coincidentally, it’s a list of my favourite things to both give and receive… (note for those intent on giving:  the asterisked books? got ’em.
But I’m wide open for all the food items… leave baskets on the porch).

1.   Food. Any form. You can’t go wrong with cheese. If you live in the vicinity of Country Cheese… fill my stocking with the goat brie (coated in ash). It’s absolutely heaven sent, this stuff. Appropriate for the time of year, no?

2.   A book about  food. I’m mad for anything Laurie Colwin, also *The CanLit Foodbook  and most recently, *a Taste of Haida Gwaii,  by Susan Musgrave. And… Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus.  I can’t believe I don’t own this.

3.   Music by Laura Smith.

4.   Gift certificate to a garden centre. My choice would be Richter’s Herbs for the following reasons: the staff know things and are pleasant (this is no longer the case at all garden centres). The selection is amazing and mostly edible. They play classical music to the seedlings. (Also, and not insignificant, the route home goes right by my favourite place for pizza.)

5.   Gift certificate to my favourite place for pizza. (This is an excellent gift and comes with a good chance of being invited to share a slice.)

6.   If you have made anything pickled, I would welcome a jar. (FYI, I’m not much for jam.)

7.  Honey. Unpasteurized of course. Local please. Or a kombucha mother. And who would say no to a bag of Atlantic dulse???

8.  And because we can’t ever have enough… books, books and more books from across this literary land. One from each province/territory — mostly published this year:

YUKON — Ivan Coyote’s *Gender Failure (Arsenal Pulp Press) actually came out in 2014. So sue me.

NWT — Ramshackle: a Yellowknife Story,  by Alison McCreesh (Conundrum Press)  (this review by John Mutford sold me)

NUNAVUT — Made in Nunavut,  by Jack Hicks and Graham White (UBCPress) Because we could stand to know more about this part of the country.

BC — Please don’t think Amber Dawn’s *Where the Words End and My Body Begins  (Arsenal Pulp Press) is only for those in love with poetry. It’s for anyone who loves words. Trust me.

ALBERTA — Rumi and the Red Handbag  (Palimset Press), by Shawna Lemay.

SASKATCHEWAN — *The Education of Augie Merasty  (University of Regina Press), by Augie Merasty and David Carpenter.

MANITOBA — A writer new to me, Katherena Vermette. I want very much to read her North End Love SongsAlso the more recent The Seven Teachings  (Portage & Main Press, 2014/15).

ONTARIO — A Rewording Life,  a fabulous project by Sheryl Gordon to raise funds for the Alzheimers Society of Canada. 1,000 writers from across the country were each given a ‘word’, which they then returned in a sentence. Essentially, it’s an anthology of a thousand sentences. I’m proud to have been invited to join the fun. My word was ‘nettles’.

QUEBEC — Okay. This came out in 2013, not 2105, but I haven’t read it and have always meant to and now it’s long listed for Canada Reads. So it’s time. Bread and Bone  (House of Anansi), by Saleema Nawaz.

NEW BRUNSWICK — *Beatitudes  (Goose Lane Editions),  by Hermenegilde Chiasson. This was published years ago (2007) but I include it because it’s truly one of my favourite books ever and I don’t get to talk about it enough.

NOVA SCOTIA — *These Good Hands  (Cormorant), by Carol Bruneau.

PEI — *Our Lady of Steerage  (Nimbus Publishing), by Steven Mayoff.

NEWFOUNDLAND & LABRADOR — Ditto the Canada Reads argument for Michael Crummey’s 2014 *Sweetland   from Doubleday.

9.  Donations to any number of good causes. And a few more ideas (some repetition, but also not). And this, recently discovered: The Native Women’s Association of Canada.

10.  The gift of art.

11.  The gift of lunch, or a walk, a phone call, an hour to really listen to someone who needs to be heard. A visit to a nursing home. A poem tucked into a card. An invitation, a freshly baked pie for the neighbour who could do with some cheering. The gift of letting someone give to us too. Margaret Visser wrote a wonderful book on that… The Gift of Thanks.

12. The gift of a promise kept.

13.  And never to be overlooked or forgotten: the gift of massage.

You’re welcome.

And thank you.