Theatre of Fish: Travels Through Newfoundland and Labrador

by John Gimlette
ISBN: 0091795192

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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 the fish."

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 colonists.
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 into extinction."
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.

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