I AM WILLING to bet that this astonishing work will puzzle the organizers of bookstore shelves, and bewilder the lovers of the quaint, picturesque Newfoundland that is so often celebrated in coffee-table books. I predict that it will confound the users of deadly dull texts, annoy academics, and will pass through the book season unheralded by newspaper critics, entertainment journalists, and literary award juries. I am also willing to bet that over time - slowly, steadily, quietly - A Place to Belong will come to attain the status of a classic. It is (it bears repeating) an astonishing work. Ask me what non-fiction title should have been short-listed for a Governor General's Award this past year and inexcusably wasn't and I will say this one.
Gerald Pocius is an associate professor in the department of folklore, and the director of the Centre for Material Culture Studies, at Memorial University in St. John's. For some years now he has been looking - and looking closely - at a small, unassuming 300-year-old fishing village on Newfoundland's southern shore. Calvert is not, by Newfoundland standards, a remarkable place. In fact, one suspects, it is Calvert's apparent ordinariness that drew Pocius to it. But under his gaze, it becomes something quite extraordinary: it becomes a place that we are made to see with a clarity that is, at times, almost unsettling. "The concern of this book.," writes Pocius, is what I believe to be the central organizing feature of Calvert daily life: space. After researching many different kinds of artifacts over the past two decades in Newfoundland, I began to realize that where people actually placed objects, how they organized the spaces of their day-to-day life through those artifacts, was more fundamental .... Whereas much research on Newfoundland has focused oddly on "rituals that may be performed once or twice a year" as somehow representing the "quintessential realms" of the culture, I was more concerned with the ordinary and the everyday -in this case, the structure of space.
As a result of this approach, Calvert becomes - through the keenness of Pocius's observations and the steadiness of his inspection - a revelation. Travel writers have the ability to evoke the places they visit. Their language and images circle the reality of their subjects, pointing, with the flourish of their narrative, toward the essence of the town or the country or the desert or tropical island about which they have decided to write. But they can only point, and reading travel writing is a very different experience from travelling. A Place to Belong, by contrast, does no circling, no pointing. It inhabits the very essence of its subject, and this is what makes it so extraordinary. It is about a place, but it isn't travel-writing. I'm not certain what it is, exactly part academic study, part personal journal, part portraiture, part inspiration but it is the only book I have ever read that might be a more clear, more real, more illuminating experience of a place than actually going there would be.
As travellers and visitors we are all beset, I think, with varying obfuscating layers of romanticism. We don't see things very clearly because we have so many preconceptions about what we should be seeing. Tourists instinctively search out the picturesque and the scenic, often overlooking the high-rise apartment next door to the Gothic cathedral -often, as a matter of fact, pretending that the highrise isn't really there. We imagine that the old will somehow tell us more than the new, the unused more than the used, the beautiful more than the common. Poems is utterly without such fuzziness, and one only need glance at any of the 150-odd black-and-white photographs that illustrate A Place to Belong to realize that we are in the company of someone who has no interest in the quaint, the pretty or the sentimental. For instance, a photograph of "a souvenir wall plaque with thermometer from Gander International Airport" faces a straightforwardly bleak and artless shot of "the modern CMHC bungalow." Another picture shows a lone crucifix on a blank wall beside a television set that sits on a "factory-made Eastlake chest of drawers in Aidan and Maude Sullivan's bedroom" None of these shots will ever grace a calendar or a tourist brochure. They are far too real for that. They have - as does the text - the reality of Calvert stamped all over them. In the pictures of Calvert kitchens you can almost taste the Carnation milk in the tea.
In the end, however, although Calvert is the star, it is the incisive nature of Gerald Pocius's study that makes A Place to Belong much more than (as it will inevitably be called) "a Newfoundland book." Reading it is like having layers of cheesecloth steadily pulled away from a stage set. His intelligence and clarity of vision bring Calvert to life, and, as much as anything, it is his investigation that is what this book is all about. Look at something long enough and carefully enough, Pocius seems to be saying, think about a place creatively enough, and it will reward us by becoming more complex, more intriguing, and more challenging to our assumptions.
A little fishing village on Newfoundland's southern shore just happened to be the particular grain of sand that Gerald Poems held in his hand. And William Blake was right. The author of A Place to Belong saw a world there.