||Atlantic Canada Ghost Stories
by Joel Yanofsky
Saul Bellow once said that "a writer works in isolation." But the whole time Dawn Rae Downton was working on Seldom, her courageous, moving memoir of life in an early 20th century Newfoundland outport, she couldn't help feeling she was not alone. Ethel Wellon Wiseman, Downton's grandmother, whose harrowing story Seldom recounts, was always with her.
"I was four months old when my grandmother died," Downton said by telephone from her farm on Nova Scotia's North shore. "When I wrote Seldom I certainly felt visited by ghosts. I loved the ghost of my grandmother, however¨hers was a warm and cushiony presence I could wrap around me. Ethel, the friendly ghost.
"I had her portrait right by my keyboard. In it, she was 18, innocent, unravaged by time or the hard place she lived.... It was odd to have her, 45 years dead, sitting on my shoulder while I wrote about her, putting the words in her mouth as I sometimes had to. Would I get them right?" The answer to that question is clearly yes. Downton has worked more than two decades as a freelance writer and critic, but Seldom is her first book. Still, nothing about it feels like a debut. It's a work of personal history that is, at the same time, a triumph of the imagination¨a testament to a writer's capacity for creative, conscientious guesswork.
The real life characters she recreates¨Ethel, her grandfather Sidney Wiseman, her aunts and uncles and, perhaps most movingly, her mother Marion as a young girl¨are pitch perfect. Even the things Downton couldn't possibly know, she somehow does. Like how Ethel¨and her children¨endured so much torment at the hands of her brutal husband Sidney Wiseman, also called Skipper Sid. Or how Marion gradually came to realize that her father's abuse had to stop and she'd have to be the one to stop it.
"A writer makes guesses. In some ways a memoirist makes more guesses than a fiction writer does," explained Downton, who is readying a short story collection and working on a novel. "The memoirist has some Šfacts' to start with. But what in the world do they all add up to?
"The fiction writer, on the other hand, decides on motivations and causes and connections for her characters... Ironically, the memoirist or biographer doesn't have the luxury of such certainty."
What the memoirist also has, these days, is the attention of the reading public. The American writer James Salter pointed out that the notion that some things are invented and some things are not and that one book is fiction and the other is not is a very arbitrary separation. "I am usually uninterested in writers who say that everything comes out of the imagination," Salter added. "I would rather be in a room with someone who is telling me the story of his (or her) life which may be exaggerated and even have lies in it, but I want to hear the true story, essentially."
Seldom is that¨the true story, essentially. For Downton, too, the line between non-fiction and fiction is no longer visible. "It's become a well-known tradition by now," she said of her style of memoir. "Even a documentary is not a presentation of facts¨it's a selected presentation of facts. There's hardly any such thing any more as a documentary, and I don't think Seldom is any less true for having a creative literary memory. What I would think is that it's way more true because I made educated guesses about what my main characters were thinking and feeling."
But Downton's done her research in Seldom, too. The toll the First World War took on Newfoundlanders, for example, is provided in gory detail: all the lost possibilities, all the destroyed families. Downton also demonstrates an ear for the rugged lilt of depression-era Newfoundland English and an eye for the unforgiving corners of the landscape. In Seldom¨the title refers to the name of the outport where Ethel and Sidney were married¨geography is destiny.
"It was cold, so what? This was Newfoundland; everything was cold," Downton writes in Seldom. "Rescue, now. Rescue was what mattered. There was salvation from without¨or there wasn't. You couldn't save yourself."
Downton's grandmother certainly couldn't. Ethel's marriage to a man whose brutality is fuelled by self-pity, is a disaster from the start. Skipper Sid is violent the way a Newfoundland storm is¨without rhyme or reason. He is, Downton writes, "like doom, always coming."
As a child, Downton remembers hearing stories about her grandfather¨about the time he shot the family dog in front of his family¨but they sounded like fairy tales, with Skipper Sid a kind of bogeyman. When Downton got older she realized the stories were true and that the terrible pain her grandfather had inflicted on his family had never gone away. She also realized that pain was part of her legacy.
But if Seldom, which will be published next fall in the U.S. by Arcade, David Adams Richards's American publisher and in the UK next January, now feels like the story Downton was meant to tell, for a long time she couldn't imagine herself telling it. Instead she wrote another memoir, Diamond, about the Nova Scotia farm she moved to a few years ago and the death of a close friend.
Diamond was rejected 49 times by Canadian publishers and 18 times by Canadian agents¨yes, she counted¨proving, among other things, that her grandmother's perseverance has been handed down. But when McClelland and Stewart passed on the manuscript, they were impressed enough with Downton's writing to ask if she had any other ideas. She mentioned Seldom; they bought it. (Incidentally, M&S is also publishing Diamond in the spring of 2003.)
Even then, Downton wasn't sure she could write the book, mainly because she knew how hard it would be for her mother to relive her childhood. But finally she convinced herself¨and her mother, who Downton calls her "north star" in the book's acknowledgements¨that telling the story would honour Ethel's memory and her suffering.
"I told my mother that it's about time her mother was allowed to speak and be heard, not be silenced anymore, not shut up and beaten down by her husband and her times and her small town life," Downton said. "I told her it's time we went home again. We did. Seldom is where we went." ˛