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To Rearrange The Past
by Helen Fogwill Porter

Asense of `the permanence of things and the impermanence of people` fuelsBernice Morgan`s literary energies BERNICE MORGAN and I haveknown each other as writing colleagues and friends for more than 30 years.Today we`re sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table in a cabin that`spart of the White Sails Inn Complex in Eastport, Bonavista Bay. Now 58, Bernicewas born in St. Johns, Newfoundland, and still lives there, on a quiet suburbanstreet with her husband, George. Their three children are grown and there is abeautiful little granddaughter named Alexa in Belleville, Ontario. Morgan ismuch in demand locally as a reader, speaker, and panelist, roles she resistedfor years but now has come to (almost) enjoy. But she is not nearly as wellknown as she should be, especially outside Newfoundland. But Newfoundland readers, and somemainlanders too -- amazingly, considering the meagre attention"regional" books get across Canada -- are at long lastbeing exposed to Morgan`s writing. Her novel Random Passage, published by Breakwater Books of St. John`s in 1992, hasreceived high praise from reviewers land readers wherever its been available.Annmarie Adams, writing in the MontrealGazette, callsit "a great Canadian story ... a wonderful mixture of love, power,forgotten pasts and missed opportunities." The Globe and Mail`s Susan Sutton describes the book as a "fascinating andfrequently horrifying glimpse into the lives of some of Canada`s early settlers... Random Passage is no pastoral idyll but ithas the ring of truth to it." And Verne Clemence, writing in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, says, "Random Passage is one of those small-pressgems that do not get much notice outside their regiions .... This is a life-affirming novel in spite of the hardships it portrays." Some of her finely crafted short stories --"Poems in a Cold Climate, 11 "Secret Places," "Moments ofGrace" have appeared in literary magazines: Fiddlehead, Grain, Pottersfield Portfolio. Others, such as"Windows," "Pictures," "Touch and Go,""Miranda," "One Morning in Wartime," have won awards inliterary competitions and have been included in various anthologies."Unfinished Houses," a compelling observation of life in a troubledSt. John`s family, has not been seen by anyone except Morgan herself and a fewother members of the Newfoundland Writers` Guild. "I just don`t feel thatit`s ready," she tells me. To those of us familiar with the power andtruth of Bernice Morgan`s work, it"s unbelievable that some of her storieshave been rejected. One of those, the 6,500- word "And Not a FaceYou Know," explores the thoughts and actions of a naive young woman from asmall Newfoundland outport who is caught in a situation starkly at odds withher expectations of the new, charmed life she has found with her boyfriend inWabush, Labrador. "They say its too long," she says, showing me oneof her complimentary rejection letters. The least vain and self-absorbedof all the writers I know, Morgan has Submitted this and her other stories toonly a few publications. In 1986 Morgan resigned from herdemanding job as communications director with the Newfoundland Teachers`Association to work on a book that had been taking shape in her mind for 15 years. "Almost everystory I`ve written has some reference to the Cape in it," she reminds me.The model for the Cape Random of her novel is Cape island, not a true island atall but a stark point of land stretching out into the north Atlantic from CapeFreels, Bonavista Bay. It was here that Morgan`s mother, Sadie Vincent, was bornand grew up. Her father, William Vardy, came from Random Island in Trinity Bay,a physically more hospitable area. The inhabitants of both communities dependedon the sea for their livelihood. Sadie and Bill met in St. John`s, where eachhad moved, along with relatives, in an attempt to escape the poverty of theGreat Depression. In the city Sadie found a job as a nursemaid for a well-offfamily. Bill went to work as a carpenter. "I`m sick to death of the notionthat if you work hard enough and you`re intelligent enough and you get yourchildren educated, you`ll succeed," Morgan says with characteristicpassion. "It`s the North American myth, isn`t it? Or the Protestant myth.It was certainly the dominant theme in my childhood. If you worked hard and gota good education, that was the safe place you were going to. My parents andgrandparents never expected to he rich, but they wanted to make sure they andtheir children would be warm and fed. They Wouldn`t he hungry, their childrenwould be better off than they were." She pauses briefly, then speaks morecalmly. "I`ve always had an emotional reaction to the things people leavebehind -those huge piles of rocks you see in Newfoundland outports, thatseem to appear every year like new crops. The abandoned houses, dishes, tools,even clothing. The permanence of things and the impermanence of people. Thisall seems so unjust to me that I`malways trying to change it, to rearrange the past, to put people back amongtheir things. It`s really only since RandomPassage waspublished that I`ve begun to work this out, to notice how often in my writingthe central character is a child or a young girl watching relatives swirlaround her, describing their belongings, trying to make sense of theirlives." Sadie Vincent Vardy died when Morgan, theeldest of her four children, was nine: "For a long time after my motherdied I had a recurring dream. It seemed to happen before I was fully asleep.Something like a giant kaleidoscope of little pieces of colour would explodeand I`d be responsible for picking up all the pieces and putting them back inplace. An awful sense of dread came with the dream; it was as if there were aweight pulling me down." Morgans grandmother called it the Old Hag, aNewfoundland term for an oppressively horrible nightmare. What 17-year-oldLavinia Andrews does in Random Passage is similar to whatMorgan is doing in her writing. In 1824 this fictitious Lavinia (the nameLavinia has appeared in every generation of Morgan`s maternal family) is livingwith her family in Weymouth, England, working by the day as a servant-girlfor the prosperous Ellsworths. Her brother Ned gets into trouble with hisemployer for a small wrongdoing; he is forced to flee England with his widowedmother and the rest of the family. After a long and harrowing journey acrossthe Atlantic, Lavinia finds herself on the shores of Cape Random, reviewingwhat has happened: Lavinia Andrews stops at the rock, the like of which she hasnever seen before, rising out of the sand, tall as a house, shining smooth andcurved at the top like a great, black finger pointing up to God....She slidesdown with her back tight against the black surface and discovers it to beslightly warm. Does this mean the sun sometimes shines in this grey, forsakenplace? In an old shipping-records book shehas found she begins then and there to record life on the Cape. Each entry inthe Cape Random section of the novel launches the reader into the ordinary andextraordinary things that happen in this desolate northern place. Morgandescribes Random Passage as "the strugglefor survival of two families, the Andrewses and the Vincents, cut off fromeverything they`ve ever known and set down in a remote part of Newfoundland. Anawful lot of people in Newfoundland got here by chance." Back in Weymouththe Andrews family had been rag-and-bone pickers, dealers in second-handgoods. They had thought they were coming to a small town much like the one theyhad left. Unlike the Vincents, who had moved to the Cape from a settledcommunity farther south, they knew nothing about fishing. How the two familieslived on Cape island, along with Thomas Hutchings, the fish merchant`srepresentative there, and Mary Bundle, who walks off a schooner one day with ababy in her arms, fills the better part of RandomPassage. Thesecond section of the book follows Thomas Hutchings to St. John`s, where theRoman Catholic cathedral is being built, and back to Cape Random. Morgan`soriginal manuscript came to 700 pages. After she finished it she went to theSt. John`s Public Library to search out the names of literary agents. She wroteto four; the pubIisher-turned-agent Jack McClelland showed immediateinterest. He felt that Random Passage was much too long for a first novel,especially one by a little-known writer. After Morgan had divided it intotwo volumes he put out feelers to several publishers. Only Breakwater respondedfavourably; McClelland had already thought of that firm as the logicalpublisher. "Books about Newfoundland don`t sell well in other parts ofCanada," he told Morgan. "Even Farley Mowat`s Newfoundland booksdon`t do nearly as well across Canada as his other works." Is it assumed,then, that only Newfoundlanders want to read about Newfoundland? Morgan is still revising the second halfof her original manuscript as a sequel to Random Passage. Titled Waiting forTime, it will follow Andrews, Vincent, and Hutchings descendants to the year2024. Already eagerly awaited by admirers of Random Passage, the new book, dueout later this year, may also he read as an independent work. "I don`treally like writing about the future." Morgan sighs, and then laughs."I just felt I had to. And now everything is happening so much faster thanI thought it would. I didn`t see how people could continue to live in outports,being sustained by codfish. But its all coming true, so much sooner than Iexpected." Morgan looks at me and says, almost toherself, "Has this all happened before? In the prologue to Random Passagethere`s a Beothuk woman who`s one of the last of her people." A Beothukthread runs through Random Passage and its sequel. "Are we the last of ourpeople? We`re not going to disappear off the face of the earth like the Beothuksdid; we`re just not going to be Newfoundlanders. "You know, we`re almost smug in theway we talk about our troubles today." The passion surges back intoMorgan`s voice. "We claim the world was never so threatened, theenvironment, everything. We almost have a sense of pride in how bad it is. ButI`m sure my parents, grandparents, and the others faced more than I ever faced,or ever will face. Faced it with a great degree of dignity and courage. Iwanted to recreate the place and time, the ambience they lived in. Just beforeI started work on Random Passage I went to a conference where the keynotespeaker advised Newfoundlanders to stop writing about the past. At first I hada certain amount of sympathy with his viewpoint. But then I began to get angry.Nobody had ever written about my grandmother or my grandfather. Nobody had evertold me what their houses were like. "When I was small I used to love tohear my mother and the others tell stories about the Cape. They were magicalstories. Miles and miles of sandy beach, nothing like the pebble kind here onthe Avalon Peninsula. To me the Cape was a mythical place where nothing badever happened. After my mother died she and the Cape became tangled up in mymind." It was only years later when Morgan visited the Cape that sherealized how difficult life must really have been there. "The birds keptus alive," one of Morgan`s uncles once told her. "Saltwater birds were a source offresh meat when there was nothing else available, she says. "You couldalways make a pot of soup. The people also looked forward to the dandelion inthe spring, something green that grew wild. There was a plant called dock, too.And, in the early spring, the seals." It was the cod that brought people toCape Island in the first place. Like the Vincents in Random Passage, early-I9th-century Bonavista Bay fishermen moved to offshore islands to be closer to thefishing grounds. "They wouldn`t have to row so far," is how Morganputs it. "Later, when the fishermen got motorboats, they moved off theislands. That wasn`t the reason the people left the Cape, though. The landgradually eroded away, and there was no fresh water. No houses on Cape Islandnow, just two graveyards, one falling into the sea. My grandfather is in the`new` graveyard, the one farther inland." When I ask how Morgan feels about havingRandom Passage described as a historical novel she doesn`t answer right away."I don`t know," she finally says. "There are negativeconnotations for that kind of book -- bodice-ripper with acastle in the background, all that. But if people who enjoy historical novelsread my book because they see it as one, I wouldn`t mind that." Morgan enjoyed The Peaceable Kingdom, byJan De Hartog, a novel of early Quaker life. She feels that Dickenss "darklanes and alleys" have also influenced her. "When I recall booksabout earlier times that I liked a lot it`s not the stories I remember. It`s ascene in a dungeon where someone is calling down to a woman. You had to get upand down by climbing an iron ladder. There was another story where a barn wasattached to a house; you could hear the animals at night. That`s the parts Iremember, not the story." She speaks of the writers she enjoystoday: Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro, Timothy Findley, Anne Tyler. "Theydo the kind of thing I want to do, record details of landscape, of time, ofplace, and the endlessly intriguing lives of people considered ordinary." In the sequel to Random Passage, a modern-day Lavinia Andrews moves back toNewfoundland and, finally, to her birthplace on the Cape. I ask Morgan what sheplans to do when her revised manuscript of Waitingfor Time is finallyOut of her hands. "I`m dying to get back to writing short stories."She`s been working on the odd story when she manages a breather from the novel."They`re getting longer all the time." When Morgan began the long and arduousjourney into the past that resulted in RandomPassage andWaiting for Time, some of her writerfriends advised her to work on a short-story collection first and thenovel later. But she was not to be swayed. From her Bonavista Bay forebears shehas inherited a strength, determination, and tenacity that would see whatneeded to be said through to its completion.

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