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.”





not so wordless wednesday postcard

Dear Newfoundland Crafters Guild Women:

You may not remember me. I stopped by one of your places on the side of the road about a decade or so ago, wandered the few aisles in a sort of barn-like building with folding tables laden with homemade this and thats. A few of you sat in chairs drinking tea and knitting, chatting amongst yourselves, asking me if I was alright my dear… and if I needed any help to just give you a nudge. I bought this tea cosy for I haven’t a clue now how much… probably not nearly enough. A few dollars. I’ve used it goodness knows how many times since then. (How many times is almost every day for a decade?)

This was also the holiday of invading fog as we sat happily enough (and innocently) on the shoreline rocks with a glass of wine, possibly bread and cheese too, and then, looking up over the water the fog coming in at a pace and thickness like I’ve never seen before. A vast platoon of cold grey air that obliterated everything as it went, and us sitting there mouths full of cheese like targets. Soon it would be all around us and we’d never be able to get off the rocks safely, we’d never find our footing, never know what was land or water. So we scrambled like crazy while we could still see. Ran to the B&B we were staying at and no sooner landed on the porch than the fog was on us and you couldn’t see a metre in front of you. That we survived makes it one of the best memories ever.

Also the same holiday when I sat on a hillside at Petty Harbour, watched a few boats coming in and wrote a poem about the women who waited in those little outports; I wondered how many times they’d held their breath until they saw their chap’s boat return while at the same time enjoying a certain temporary freedom and community with each other.

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’re
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.

Anyway, I just wanted to say, dear crafter women, somebody made a pretty incredible tea cosy. And thank you. And I want you to know that I think of you often, your knitting and your chatting and willingness to be nudged in that barn with its hot beverages and cookies on offer and I am grateful for you and for women everywhere who work at these seemingly simple tasks to raise funds for hospitals and schools and families in need and how I”m not sure you realize what an enormous chunk of the planet you hold up…

I just want you to know this is what I sometimes think when I have my tea.



Other (not always) wordless friends:

Allison Howard
Barbara Lambert
Elizabeth Yeoman


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.

love that rock

Couldn’t be happier to have stumbled over a bit of info (please don’t ask how) advising that today, in 1583, the first English settlement in North America was founded at St. John’s, Newfoundland—an event I picture as involving a large sign reading Hands Off!, signed England, some merry jigs and a kitchen party or two.

I first went to that beautiful land a couple of years ago and while I was initially frightened by fog and ragged cliffs and isolated ports, I soon fell in love with fog and cliffs and isolation. And then I went to St. John’s… and was hooked forever.

So I may have to celebrate with some pan-fried cod (or equivalent) and scrunchions (there is no equivalent and I don’t know how to make them so forget that idea).

Or I’ll re-read of one of my new favourite writers or flip through my gorgeous glossy copy of Riddle Fence (still on issue #4) inside which is ‘A Conversation Between Two Fiction Writers’, namely Bernice Morgan and Joan Clark, who, among other things “…discuss the squatters in their heads, the nature of genocide, and that nasty little bugbear of political correctness: appropriation of voice.”  Which reminds me I have yet to read Cloud of Bone. Or I could open House of Hate by Percy James, which I bought at the very wonderful Afterwords Bookstore on Duckworth Street and have wanted to read for yonks and which fits (kind of) the memoir-ish theme I’m working on these days. Okay it doesn’t fit at all but I’d like to read it anyway. And for something completely different, and not in the least memoir-ish either, could be it’s time for Come Thou Tortoise, which for reasons unknown has been on my mind a while…

Heck, why don’t I just push the boat right out… slap on some Ron Hynes , open a bottle of something lovely (no, definitely not that); mabye flip through the photo album, remember hiking Gross Morne in the snow, in June. All those moose, the picnic of cheese and water at Tablelands that was so amazingly delicious; feasting on fresh crab and lobster and cloudberry jam. And the way people talk—really talk—to you. The woman named Hazel who cooked us haigs and bacon in Twillingate while we watched hicebergs float by her livingroom window.  And the guy who was mowing his lawn when we stopped to ask directions and how we ended up learning how many pounds of carrots and potatoes he generally harvested and how it got god almighty cold in winter with the wind coming in across the water straight at their house and, yes, my dear, it might seem like there wasn’t much around to love but he wouldn’t live anywhere else and that he had a son in Toronto who lived in an apartment overlooking the 401 and couldn’t wait to get home to the wind and cold and the nothing that is actually ‘everything’ that’s important.

Oh yes. I love that rock.

Happy August 5th.