Theatre of Fish: Travels Through Newfoundland and Labrador|
by John Gimlette
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|A Review of: Theatre of Fish: Travels Through Newfoundland and Labrador
by Christopher Ondaatje
Annie Proulx's much acclaimed novel Shipping News won not only the
1993 National Book Award for Fiction but also the 1994 Pulitzer
Prize. However, despite the author's skillful manipulation of her
characters, together with her rather disturbing subjects (child
molestation, incest, serial adultery and retardation), what really
comes across in the otherwise exemplary book is her obvious distaste
for her characters and her setting-Newfoundland. I sometimes felt
a little uncomfortable reading the book.
Now an exceptional piece of travel writing, Theatre of Fish, by
John Gimlette gives a much more sympathetic yet no less grim picture
of the magnificent but bizarre coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Newfoundland is now a province of Canada, comprising the sparsely
populated coast of Labrador and the rugged triangular island of
Newfoundland. It lies between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of
St. Lawrence and consists mainly of a low forested plateau rolling
gently to the North East. The island has a miserably infertile
interior and most of its population (a little over 600,000) live
along the inhospitable, irregular coast, especially in the South
East. Newfoundland was actually discovered by John Cabot in 1497
and eventually became an English fishing station where, not
surprisingly, settlement was actively discouraged until the 19th
century. It became a dominion during the First World War, and in
1949 it turned into the newest of Canada's ten provinces. Newfoundland
has a total area of about 143,000 square miles.
What John Gimlette has done in this unveiling travelogue is to
follow in the footsteps of his great grandfather, Dr. Eliot Curwen,
who spent the summer of 1893 in Newfoundland with Dr. Wilfred
Grenfell. He was witness to some of the most beautiful ice and
cruelest poverty in the British Empire, and he made an extraordinary
journey across the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.
To all those who live there, Newfoundland is known simply as "The
Rock", and the "fish" in Gimlette's book mean cod.
Nothing else is as significant. The province literally owes its
existence to fish Gimlette writes:
"Newfoundland made its first appearance in European maps in
1436, as the lyrical land of stockfish'. Half-mythical, half-piscatorial,
it remained a trade secret for the next sixty-one years. Then in
1947 Cabot made his historic, political discovery', and after that
the fish rush was on. It has been a bloody struggle. Fish has been
the prize (if not the catalyst) in some nine wars around Newfoundland
and Labrador: six with France, two with America, and one with the
Netherlands. Generally speaking it was the British who emerged with
But this is not a story of fish, despite the book's title (and even
though cod, "whether alive or dead, fresh, green, salted or
cured," would determine Newfoundland's fate for nearly half
the colony's history, from 1633 to 1811), this is much more the
story of the present-day inhabitants of this rugged wilderness.
Descended from last-hope Irishmen, outlaws, navy-deserters and
fishermen from Jersey and Dorset, this exuberant breed, as the
author points out, are a warm, salty, lawless and witty band of
Gimlette fears that Labradorians and Newfoundlanders will mistrust
his book. The residents of "The Rock" think it impossible
for any "foreigner" to portray them accurately. Gimlette
recounts that everywhere, during his sometimes unbearably uncomfortable
travels, he was treated with "embarrassing kindness." He
hopes, in fact, that they will see in his writing real admiration
and affection. This is what makes Gimlette's book and Shipping News
so very different.
In the early years before Dominion and Confederation "a man
could be a fish millionaire and not own a penny." Fish was
even used to pay school fees. It was an ungainly economy. Today,
even though the cod has all but disappeared, and it is over fifty
years since the colony joined Canada, the heritage of fish still
exerts a powerful influence on landscape: "Almost every community
in Labrador or Newfoundland hangs over the ocean. There is a veritable
air of impermanence about them. Newfoundlanders are neither North
American nor quite European. There are rough waters between. Nothing
until Ireland several thousand miles to the east. Nothing, that is,
except the fish and sea-top of the Atlantic."
John Gimlette sets out six literary "Acts", which account
for his alluring journey. The first is "St. John's". Jan
Morris said in Locations, "Beneath the charm there lies a
bitterness. St. John's is full of disappointment and is an exposed
and isolated place in more senses than one." The city burnt
to the ground in the time of Grenfell and the current obstinate,
modern city was built on the charred remains of the 1892 fire. Few
buildings survived the inferno. Gimlette found "a fishing fleet
anchored to a hill." As he saw it, "a sense of hereditary
failure seemed to stalk the city."
Gimlette's second Act is "Planting Avalon". He observes
that its bog "is another case of good intentions cluttering
the road to Hell." The Avalon peninsula is a "knobbly
parson's nose of land, blue-pocked and threaded with bogs."
It is the most southerly "Arctic" region in the world,
its interior a featureless, untitled blank. Not very inviting, but
Gimlette journeyed in his great grandfather's footsteps to Cape
Broyle, as far south as Curwen had gone, and then went even further
south to Ferryland, where he stayed in a cabin in the barrens,
feasting on Mrs Duggan's "shipwreck dinner" and breakfast
of "fish and brewis": salt cod, onions, hard tack and
scrunchions of fat-back pork. It was in Ferryland that Gimlette
heard the gruesome details of Father Hickey's thirty-two charges
of sexual abuse of children in 1988. This was followed by even more
sordid revelations of the Christian brothers' abuse of altar boys
in Mount Cashel-a bad chapter in Newfoundland's history.
Amelia Earhart used this last lump of the Americas in 1932 to launch
her flight to become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic
alone. She disappeared mysteriously somewhere over the Pacific five
years later. And there's much more in Gimlette's broad-ranging
history lesson: the battle for the cod fishing rights; Britain's
insistence on the return of the island from the French; the Treaty
of Utrecht; Captain James Cook's arrival in Placentia in 1762; Sir
Joseph Bank's arrival in 1766 (he identified 340 plants and 91 birds
and countless fish). Gimlette offers additional tidbits: Prince
William (later William IV) spread his fertile seed around Placentia
for a year in 1786; Sir Winston Churchill and President Franklin
D. Roosevelt stayed for three days in the early 1940s hatching plans
for what would eventually become the United Nations. Avalon was the
heart and soul of the old colony.
Gimlette's third Act, "North with the Floaters", opens
with his return to St. John's the following summer. Several bars
were offering nudity with their pies and beers. He walked out to
the Narrows along the cliffs, and saw the largest population of
humpback whales in the world exploding in the water. It was impossible
to count the spouts. An old whaler Gimlette met had spent 25 years
killing whales and the next 30 wishing he hadn't. The slaughter
spawned factories. By 1900 Newfoundland was processing 1299
"finners" a year. Robert Reid built a railway across
Newfoundland in exchange for a million acres of land and other
concessions. It wasn't a bad deal for Newfoundland.
Taking Curwen's route, Gimlette headed for the northern coast, to
Terra Nova. Even in June the ferry was not operating. Too much ice.
Fish was the magnet in this unimaginably harsh country. By 1850,
over 400 ships a year were setting out from the north coast of
Newfoundland "to sieve" the Labrador Sea of its cod. By
the end of the 19th century there were 1400 schooners involved.
Gimlette continued up to Trinity, where he camped in a turnip patch
in Glen Cove, and further up the coast to Wesleyville, Greenspond,
and Musgrave Harbour, where he learned about Captain Samuel Blandford
who wore seal-skin waistcoats with his morning suit. Legend has it
that in twenty-one years he hauled half a million seal pelts in
from the Trinity.
As far north as the Change Islands people spoke with the voice of
the Old World-probably because without ferry service they remained
isolated until 1962. Gimlette drank screech with fishermen and
stretched stories into the afternoon-about the past, bird nesting,
guns, unruly games like Pedley, Tiddley and Grump, but most of all
about survival. He saw icebergs all around and fishermen "chugging
out there to hack off bits for their drinks." It is often said
that half of the lies told in Newfoundland are true. "Tilting",
he learnt, was the other half of all the lies. Gimlette learnt of
an amazing A. Frank Willie who could play six instruments at once,
and sang like a fish. He met a sealer whose cat slept in the oven
from Christmas through to Easter.
They talked about the disappearance of the Beothuks-the original
inhabitants-almost completely butchered by the "white man".
In the early 17th century the Beothuk's world started falling apart
as fishermen arrived with guns. A hundred years later the Beothuks
had become a rare sight. The fishermen regarded the slaughter as
merely a "vermin hunt". "On the part of the English
fishers," says a government report of 1768, "it is an
inhumanity that sinks them far below the level of the savages."
The report is a catalogue of gruesome mutilation: ". . .of
squaws' hacked down as they bared their breasts in supplication,
of children bled to death and of a pregnant woman ripped open out
of drunken curiosity." By the time of the 1768 report, the
"white men" were in command of the rivers. They were
taking over a million pounds of salmon a year, and by 1823 there
were only a dozen or so Beothuks left.
Grand Falls was a different story. In 1904 Alfred Harmsworth-later
Lord Northcliffe-bought over 2300 square miles of the surrounding
forest to sustain his voracious halfpenny squib, the Daily Mail.
Grand Falls became a place commensurate with its product-cheap and
nasty. When the ice cleared, Gimlette left the north coast and
journeyed up through the Labrador Sea-Act IV.
Labrador, Newfoundlanders say, is "just a waste of space."
There was no work to the north, no future and no need to be there.
Although they'd heard of the great new nickel mine at Voisey's Bay,
it was rumoured to produce more rancour than dirt. It was an area
bigger than the British Isles-about the size of Italy. With only
30,000 people it is perhaps the "scariest land in the world."
All bogs and grizzly bears. There were no railways or bridges, and
practically no trees. "God built the world in six days, say
Canadians, and on the seventh he pelted Labrador with rocks."
Bjorn Herjulfson is supposed to have been the first to bring back
news of Labrador in the eleventh century. Then, in 1508, it was Joo
Fernandes. But it was Jacques Cartier, a Frenchman, almost a quarter
of a century later, looking for the northwest passage, who gave the
world its first descriptions: "Stones and horrible rocks . I
could not find one cartload of earth though I landed in many
places." Gimlette's Labrador tales are gruesomely harrowing:
of George Cartwright at the end of the 18th century-trapper, trader,
sexton, priest, and Labrador's governor; of the Esquimau, the
mosquitoes, and Great Caribou Island. Sheep might have thrived,
but the Labradorean dogs usually killed them. Black-flies everywhere.
Men have been known to go mad, dogs die, moose collapse, and lynx
leap into rivers. Gimlette wanted to tear off his skin and run away.
He stayed and ate cold blueberries and Battle cheese.
Afterwards Gimlette traveled up Hamilton Inlet, Eskimo Bay, Goose
Bay. Later, in Turnavik, he discovered, there's little else but
lichen. Hopedale is still menaced by Labradorean dogs. People were
literally afraid of being eaten by the dogs who defined not only
the limits of the town but the way it looked. He arrived in Sampo
Bay, then in Nain, the most northerly of Labrador outposts, the
wildest and the most picturesque. For Gimlette it was the best,
worst, maddest, most beautiful and last place in the world.
Act V is "Back via Old New France". The sense Gimlette
had of being edible soon began to fade. In St. Anthony there were
Grenfell houses, Grenfell hospitals, Grenfell streets, and old
sunken Grenfell wharves. Even Grenfell cloth! "Dr. Grenfell
was a very good man," wrote H.G. Wells in Marriage, "but
he made brandy dear, dear beyond the reach of the common man
altogether on this coast." His orphanages reflected the best
of his own childhood: bracing cold, freedom from shoes, and never
a moment of idleness. Downtown in St. John's stands a statue of
Grenfell, dressed as an Eskimo.
Gimlette went by bus along The French Shore to Savage Cove, Corner
Brook, and Port au Port. He took the long stretch straight from
Port aux Basques to Burin, known simply as the South Coast. It
hasn't been French since 1713. There wasn't anywhere to stay so
Gimlette stayed in the bush. When a moose tripped over his guy-ropes,
news of the incident preceded him all the way along the coast-Rose
Blanche, as well as The Neck. He boarded the South Coast Steamer
for the scattered outposts of the Burin peninsula, the last outposts
of a one-time great empire. "A way of life that had remained
broadly unchanged for nearly four hundred years was now crumbling
Act VI is "Baby Bonus". "It's a hard, hard life with
nothing to show at the end but broken health and poverty,"
Annie Proulx sums up in The Shipping News. And in a way this is
true. Newfoundland eventually sold out in exchange for monthly Baby
Bonus cheques distributed to mothers for every new baby. At least
there was money-or benefits. But first there was Sir Richard Squires,
who became Prime Minister for a second time in 1923. He didn't
last ten years and was ousted by a mob. He was lucky to leave with
his life. Whitehall reacted. Britain took over the debts in return
for control. For the next sixteen years Newfoundland was ruled by
civil servants. Newfoundlanders have never forgotten the humiliation:
"We got what was good for us alright, but not much of what we
wanted." Then war broke out, and Newfoundland became strategic:
"It was no longer on the edge but in the middle of a huge
military migration; over 2500 planes would pass through Goose Bay
alone, and 10,000 ships through "Newfie
John"-"Newfoundlanders loved the Americans, sometimes too
much? We didn't care," they recall, "we all had work."
The war ended, and everyone pulled out. Newfoundlanders wondered
who would replace the British lawyers? The answer was a pig-breeder
from Gambo called Joey Smallwood. "He stank," but as
Premier he changed the history of Newfoundland. He brought about
confederation and a union with Canada. In 1946 the new British
socialist government backed Smallwood, and the opportunity to shed
Newfoundland. He held a referendum that failed: 69,400 votes against
and 64,066 for confederation. He tried again in 1949. Many still
consider the outcome a sham. Smallwood was accused of getting voters'
names off gravestones. But it wasn't hard to vote for money: 78,323
in favour, and 71,334 against. On April Fool's Day, in 1949, Britain's
oldest colony became Canada's newest Province. In St. John's the
flags flew at half mast. "We're more part of Europe than
America," the Irish told Gimlette. "Union cost us the
seal hunt," complained the north-coast English. "And our
cod," the fishermen told him. Fifty years have passed and still
there is vociferous dissent. But history can't be altered. In 1949
Joey Smallwood won the election, and he remained in power for the
next twenty-five years. Between 1954 and 1975, 250 outports were
closed down. "There was a purse for those who'd move."
Smallwood had wooed the people with Baby Bonus and then he enslaved
them with patronage. Over fifty percent of the island's gross product
was in the hands of the government.
In a farewell coda Gimlette placed a goodbye call to Dr. Gracie
Sparkes. "What will you call your book?" she asked. He
told her. "Sure," she said, "there's been plenty of
drama. But has it been a tragedy or a comedy?" This is something
they've been fighting over for years.