This is a transcription of Episode 42 — Atlantic Canada.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
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David: Welcome to Season Four, Episode 42 of Strong Sense of Place. Today we are getting curious about Atlantic Canada. Once again, we’ve not been to Atlantic Canada.
Melissa: Kind of. When I was a teenager, my dad took my brother and I to the St Lawrence Seaway for a summer vacation. And the thing I remember most vividly was a lot of jumping off of a dock and swimming.
David: I think there’s a lot of jumping off of docks in Atlantic Canada.
Melissa: Yeah, I think so too.
David: Yeah. But again.
Melissa: As an adult have not been there. And based on my research, this is the place I need to go almost immediately.
David: Darn it.
Melissa: Or Yay.
David: You are correct. Let me change my perspective on that. Yay! Let’s go. When we were doing the research for this show, I saw an interview from an author I’m going to talk about in a little bit, Farley Mowat. Farley was not born in Newfoundland, but got there as soon as he could, basically. He said this: ‘The people in Newfoundland epitomize all of the really extraordinary qualities that make the human species viable and worthwhile and endurable. They are people of adversity who understand that you only survive in this world if you do so by making an accommodation with the natural world around you. And that was the only way they could survive.’ And I thought that was a really nice place to start. Yeah.
Melissa: What a great quote. Endurable
David: And he just, like, you know, rattled that off the top of his head. I saw him do it.
Melissa: That’s amazing. I have to practice a lot to sound like I know what I’m talking about.
David: 100%. Yeah. And even then, I’m kind of like, oh.
Melissa: Hilary Mantel is also like that.
Melissa: Full paragraphs roll out of her mouth like she just thought of them. It’s amazing.
David: Well, and you can see them generating, which is the cool thing about her. Somebody will ask her questions. She’ll sit there in silence for a second, and then she’ll cough out fully written prose.
Melissa: A beautiful, benevolent word witch, and we are lucky to have her. But onto Canada. Let’s get oriented. Visualize your world map. Everybody head north to Canada.
Melissa: And then turn right and go east to the Atlantic Ocean. Boom. Atlantic Canada. It’s made up of four provinces, Newfoundland and Labrador. That’s one.
Melissa: And the three maritime provinces. They are New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. But from here on out, I’ll be calling that P.E.I. because I’m cool like that.
David: Yeah, that’s what all the cool kids do all right.
Melissa: Okay. Let’s all just visualize a lot of craggy coastlines, sand dunes shaped by the wind coming in off the Atlantic. Crashing surf, lonely lighthouses, and lots of piney green. I can only imagine that the air smells fantastic.
David: I feel like Newfoundland and that entire area. You are either going to absolutely love it or you are going to want to leave as soon as possible. And there’s no in between. It is just so —
David: Bracing and pine trees and water and lots of flannel and coffee —
Melissa: Moose. These are some of my favorite things.
David: Yeah, I’m down.
Melissa: And if you go, you will definitely want to bring your stomping about boots and a raincoat. Mm hmm. The coastal areas get very wet and foggy.
David: Maybe a hat.
Melissa: Definitely a hat. Especially in winter, because the inland regions have some of the highest snowfall in all of Canada. One of my research sources said, with just charming understatement, ‘Winter requires some grit.’
David: I would imagine it does.
Melissa: Talking about the Atlantic Provinces heritage usually focuses on immigrants from Western Europe, so Scottish, Irish, English, and French, also known as Acadian. But I want to make sure we also acknowledge the native people from the area.
Melissa: In the Maritimes it was mostly Mi’kmaq. They are a First Nations people of the Northwestern Woodlands. And then in Newfoundland and Labrador, because it’s further north, there’s a history of Innu, Inuit, and also Mi’kmaq. These provinces are lumped together and talked about together, but they are pretty distinct. So I thought that I would go over a little bit of shorthand for each one so that they feel a little bit more concrete.
Melissa: We’re going to start with Nova Scotia. It’s shaped like a lobster claw.
David: Is it?
Melissa: It is. If you look at the map, it looks exactly like a lobster claw. Its name is Latin for New Scotland.
David: Yeah, I found that out when we were doing the research, and it was one of those things where I learned it. And also I went, Well, of course it is Nova Scotia, New Scotland.
Melissa: It’s right there in the name. Darth Vader.
David: Yeah, same thing.
Melissa: Nova Scotia was settled by immigrants from Scotland, England, and Ireland. From 1928 until 1971, those new arrivals docked at Pier 21 in Halifax Harbor. This was like Canada’s version of Ellis Island. More than a million immigrants landed there.
Melissa: English is the primary language spoken in Nova Scotia, but even into the 20th century, it wasn’t uncommon to hear Gaelic in rural areas. Now, more than 70% of the population lives by the coast. Nova Scotia was a major fishing, coal, and shipbuilding hub until the 1990s when the fishing industry collapsed. So now most of the residents work in service industries and tourism. If you want to see the quintessential charming fishing village, you know, the colorful houses that are kind of clinging to the shore. Nova Scotia is the place. So you can think of this as the fishing village province.
Melissa: Next up, we’ve got New Brunswick. This one is more mountainous and is probably best known for the Bay of Fundy, which is super fun to say. There are two things that make the Bay of Fundy remarkable. First, it’s bordered by rock formations called flowerpot rocks. They’re caused by the tidal erosion of the sandstone cliffs. And they kind of look like a giant was playing with a flower pot and then dropped it and forgot about it for so long, a tree grew on top.
David: The scale of these things is amazing.
Melissa: It is. They’re really stunning.
David: Yeah, they’re stories tall. And then on top of that is a is a forest, is a little tiny forest.
Melissa: And maybe underneath there’s a hollow like some of them are arches. So at low tide, you can walk around them and at high tide, you can kayak around them and through them. It’s amazing.
David: Let’s talk about that tide, though.
Melissa: Yeah. So that’s the other thing about the Bay of Fundy. It has the highest tides in the world, and the biggest variation between high tide and low tide. The difference between high and low tide in most parts of the world is one meter. It’s about three feet.
David: Yeah. So your boat goes up a little bit.
Melissa: A little bit. In the Bay of Fundy, the tides rise and fall in some areas by 14 meters. That is 46 feet.
David: Yeah, 46 feet is about four stories. That’s serious business.
Melissa: We just were looking at the height of our building that we live in yesterday and it’s five stories. So imagine —.
David: The water going on all the way up. Yep. And it happens very quickly. In 6 hours, the tide comes in.
Melissa: Yeah. I have a video that I’ll put in show notes of some rangers standing in the water. And in the space of half an hour, the water went from their ankles to their chins. It’s amazing. So let me give you a little perspective on how much water that’s moving. The tides in the bay move more water than all of the world’s rivers put together.
David: That’s impressive and also really hard to think about.
Melissa: Exactly. There’s another really good video which I’ll also put in in show notes done by Hank Green, who’s the brother of the author John Green. He has these science videos that he does, and he really goes into the explanation of what’s going on with the tides. It’s pretty fascinating.
David: The Green Brothers have done some really phenomenal educational work on YouTube. It’s a deep, awesome river of great stuff.
Melissa: Warning you will lose a lot of time, but you’ll come out a lot smarter.
Melissa: New Brunswick is officially bilingual. More than 30% of its residents speak French as their first language. The majority of this province is covered by forest. So your shortcut here is this one is the woodsy province.
Melissa: New Brunswick is connected to P.E.I. by the Confederation Bridge. So that’s how we’re going to get over to P.E.I. in a moment. This bridge is 12.9 kilometers or eight miles long.
David: Wow, that’s a long walk.
Melissa: [laughter] It’s the longest bridge in Canada and the world’s longest bridge over ice-covered water. I feel like that ice-covered water phrase was stuck in there because there was some kind of big fight about what was the longest bridge in the world.
Melissa: Continuing with the superlatives, P.E.I. is the smallest Canadian province. It’s about twice the size of the state of Rhode Island and twice the size of Luxembourg for our friends in Europe. Most people live in the capital of Charlottetown and the rest is small villages and it is all very, very picturesque. There are red sandstone cliffs and forests and charming clapboard houses. Which brings me to a thing that’s going to be very exciting for many of our bookish friends. The classic children’s novel Anne of Green Gables is set on P.E.I., And there are many pilgrimage sites for fans of the book on the island. There’s a museum, there are walks you can go on. There’s the green gabled house. So we’re going to call P.E.I. the Anne of Green Gables Province.
Melissa: now we’ve made our way to Newfoundland and Labrador. This is a pretty big province. Yeah, it’s about the same size as Bulgaria or the state of Pennsylvania, and it has a little bit of each of the other provinces. So forests, dramatic coastline, the colorful fishing towns plus because it’s further north: northern lights, whales, and puffins, which I think we can all agree are the best bird because they’re very cute and they can fly and swim.
David: Mel has been pushing forth her puffin agenda as long as I’ve known her, which I find endearing, but also —
Melissa: They can can fly and swim.
David: But the best bird?
Melissa: Have you seen their little faces?
David: They are very cute.
Melissa: This is also where you go if you want to see icebergs floating past the shore, or you maybe want to experience some wind that’s strong enough to rattle your teeth.
David: Can I do one without the other?
David: Okay. It’s all one experience.
Melissa: There’s also speculation that this is where the Viking Leif Ericson landed in North America. You can visit the remains of an 11th century Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows. The other thing I wanted to be sure to talk about is that some Newfoundlanders speak an English dialect similar to the one spoken in southwestern England. So you might hear things like ‘You’re some crooked,’ which means you’re grouchy.
Melissa: Or your CFA. Or come from a way. Which means someone from outside the community.
David: The Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism Board did a fantastic set of videos that are on YouTube. If you want to get excited about going to Newfoundland, I very much recommend checking them out. But for our audience in particular, there is a series they did on language that’s specific to that area.
Melissa: Oh, how fun.
David: And then they have locals explaining what it means and in some cases how it came about. And it’s very nice.
Melissa: You might think of Newfoundland as the Moody Province or the Cold Province.
David: I think of Newfoundland is like the big brother to that area. I feel like he gets all the attention.
Melissa: I mean, you’re welcome to make up your own little title. Obviously, I want to eat lobster. I want to watch puffins and whales. I want to take a hike along the shore. I want to go kayaking at the Flowerpot Rocks. I want to do all of it.
Melissa: But I also learned about a hotel that is now on my ‘get there somehow’ list. It’s called the Fogo Island Inn, and it’s on a small island off the coast of Newfoundland. All of its 29 rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the ocean and the sky. It is astonishingly beautiful. It’s about as close as you can get to sleeping on the sea without actually being in the water.
David: Yeah, it sounds like a really good place to go look for the Northern Lights, too. Yes.
Melissa: And here’s the best part. The hotel is run by a charity that’s dedicated to making the island more economically resilient. When the fishing industry collapsed, it became really hard for a lot of people there. So they’re being really creative about how to retrain people in jobs and inject some life into their economy. The hotel is very transparent about where each dollar of the room rate goes and any surplus — right now, that’s about 18% — is reinvested back into the Fogo Island community. So it’s a super posh hotel, but you can feel good about staying there because it’s directly supporting the people who live there.
David: Nice. Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie?
Melissa: I will do my best.
David: I’m about to say three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is not. Mel does not know which one is the lie. Here are the three statements. One: When the tide is right, a person could row from Canada to France in about 4 hours.
Melissa: You looked very pleased with yourself, as you said that. [laughter]
David: Two, there’s a mysterious pit in Nova Scotia that people have excavated for over 200 years. No one knows what’s at the bottom of it. And three —
Melissa: That sounds like just a… hole. Did they think they were going to get to China?
David: We’ll, get into it. And three, there’s a Tony Award-winning musical based on a small town in Newfoundland. Okay. The first one: When the tide is right, a person can row from Canada to France in about 4 hours.
Melissa: That sounds completely made up.
David: It’s only partially made up. It’s kind of a lie. So you can’t get to France from Canada in 4 hours, but you can get to the last French territory in North America.
David: Yeah, Saint Pierre a Miquelon. And again, sorry for blowing the pronunciation.
Melissa: Daves’ French pronunciation — .
David: Has charmed all of Paris.
Melissa: Yes, it’s delicious .
David: I was once considered for a diplomatic position based on my accent alone. Saint Pierre a Miquelon is a chain of islands about 15 miles or 25 kilometers south of Newfoundland. They are a little chain of rocky islands with a complex history. The islands were claimed for France by Jacques Cartier in 1536.
Melissa: Did he say ooh la la? C’est moi?
David: He probably did. I claim this rock for France. He would go on to be the first European to map the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. He would say Sing along. As far as we know, nobody lived on those islands for the next 150 years. And then they went back and forth between the British and the French in a tennis-like volley. The British took control of the islands in 1713, 1778, 1794, 1803 and 1815.
David: And the French took them back each time. During World War II, the Vichy took control of the islands, but de Gaulle came and got them back. So as a result, the French have fought the French for these islands.
Melissa: Wow. Is there anything on them worth having?
David: There’s a nice little town now. They are primarily used as a basis for fishing that area, sometimes contentiously, as far as the Newfoundlanders are concerned. Since 1985, it’s been what the French calls a ‘territorial collectivity.’
Melissa: Makes it sound really groovy.
David: The end result is the 6000 or so people who live there are French, but it’s not France. So suppose you go to Saint Pierre a Miquelon, you would have to take a passport and go through customs. You’d use the euro. You hear native born French citizens speaking French. You’d see cobblestone streets. You could eat baguette and escargot, and you’d use the 220 volt European outlet.
Melissa: That sounds actually kind of delightful.
David: Doesn’t it? Yeah. Saint Pierre is also the only place in North America where the guillotine has been used in the search for justice. That happened once in 1889, and they still have the guillotine in a museum there, if you want to take a look at it. The statement Two: There’s a mysterious pit in Nova Scotia that people have been excavating for over 200 years.
Melissa: Explain to me why it’s not just a big hole.
David: So there’s a small island off the south shore of Nova Scotia and it’s called Oak Island. Since the 1700s, people have thought Captain Kidd’s treasure was buried there. The local lore is there was a dying utterance from a member of Captain Kidd’s crew. He said a treasure worth £2 million was on the island. It would now be worth about £42 million, plus the historical value. Later, a teenager found a circular depression in the ground. This is in the 1700s that struck him funny. And he’d heard the story about the pirates. So he got some friends and they started digging. They found some flagstones about two feet down. They kept going, and then they’d run into oak platforms every ten feet or about three metres. And finally, they gave up around 30 feet.
David: A decade later, another group takes it down to 90 feet or 27 metres, but it floods. That might have been a trap. A fiendish pirate flooding trap.
David: Yeah. And after that, it’s 200 years of men showing up to dig more shafts until their time or their money run out. Men have died searching. Sometimes people find things. So, some coins, a tablet, a religious relic, some tools, coconut fibres. It’s just enough to keep people interested. Over the years, investors have included Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Errol Flynn, and John Wayne.
Melissa: Oh, that’s amazing.
David: Yeah. Nobody knows what’s down there. If anything. There is strong speculation that there is something down there. It might be Kidd’s treasure, it might be Blackbeard’s. It could be treasure of the Aztecs. Maybe it’s Shakespeare’s manuscripts. There’s a theory that it’s that, or the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant Left Behind by the Templars or the Freemasons.
David: Maybe it’s that briefcase from Pulp Fiction that glows gold. More than 50 books have been written speculating what’s buried on Oak Island. The History Channel has a reality TV show called The Curse of Oak Island. They wrapped up their ninth season this year.
Melissa: Nine seasons? This is amazing.
David: There are drinking games for this show. One of them suggests you take a drink every time the narrator starts a sentence with ‘Could it be’ [laughter] If you want to keep up with that season ten of The Curse of Oak Island starts November 1st.
Melissa: That might be one of my favorite truths ever.
David: It’s a good one, right? So the Tony Award-winning musical based on the small town in Newfoundland… And I feel like it’s a — you either know or you don’t. There’s a tiny town in Newfoundland called Gander. Gander is the home of the easternmost international airport in North America. Back in the day, international flights would stop there before taking the trip over the Atlantic. They’d stop for a few hours and they’d gas up and they’d they’d get going. As a result, Gander has hosted an impressive number of celebrities. So people like Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley have all at some point been through Gander and walked around the airport there.
David: And I’ll tell you, they haven’t changed the airport much since then. It is a nice-looking place. It is well-maintained and it still has a very 1950s chic to it.
David: Yeah. It’s not hard to imagine Marilyn Monroe stopping for coffee and a donut there. They’ve also had some Soviet defections there because it’s the last stop back to Europe, but that’s a different story. Times have changed since the fifties. Bigger jets have been developed. They have a longer cruising range and they don’t need to stop in Gander. So they don’t. And as you can imagine, that was tough on the town. The whole town is built around that airport and things got slow. The last time I looked. There are five daily flights for passengers out of Gander, but then there was September 11th. The 9/11 attacks had just happened and the FAA took the extraordinary measure of shutting down US airspace.
David: Nobody was going out and nobody was coming in. Canadian air traffic control was under the impression that if they let a plane enter US airspace, it would be shot down. That day, within hours, 38 transcontinental jets landed at Gander International Airport.
David: Almost 6700 passengers and crew needed lodging and food and to tell people they were okay. The population of Gander at that time was fewer than 10,000 people.
David: Those 10,000 people showed up that day. They put what they were doing on hold. They set up bus lines and cafeterias. Ppassengers were taken to schools and fire stations and church halls to sleep. The Canadian military flew in 5000 cots. People donated blankets and coffee machines and towels and TVs and barbecue grills. They found pharmaceuticals. They set up banks of phones to call home free of charge. Some of the Canadians cooked meals for five days straight.
David: When the passengers left on the plane home, they set up a scholarship fund for the children of Gander. The fund is now worth a million and a half dollars.
Melissa: That’s amazing.
David: That’s great. They’ve helped over 200 children from Gander in the area attend college. A musical was written about those events and it’s called Come From Away. It opened on Broadway in 2017. It went on to be nominated for seven Tony Awards, and it won one. There’s also a movie of that musical, if you’re interested, it’s on Apple TV. Rotten Tomatoes has it at 98%.
Melissa: Oh, cool. We should watch that.
David: Yeah. And if you’re interested in learning more about Gander, there’s a book. It’s called The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland, by Jim DeFede.
Melissa: What a nice way to take a terrible event and turn it into something life-affirming.
David: Yeah. That’s two tourists in a lie.
Melissa: That was a really good one.
David: Isn’t that nice? So before we get to the book talk, we want to tell you about a podcast we’ve been listening to and talking about. It’s called Cerca. That’s CERCA. It’s an immersive combo of city guide and podcasts that gives you a strong sense of of every city.
Melissa: They’re fairly new, but they already have guides for some of the best destinations around the world, some of our favorite places and places we’ve covered. London, Barcelona, Costa Rica, Iceland, Rome, and a bunch more.
David: The the guides are written and hosted by locals. So you’re getting the scoop from people who really know the place. When Virginia and Rome tells you this is the best place in the city to get carbonara. She knows what she’s talking about.
Melissa: I’m also really excited because we’re thinking about a trip to Spain and Cerca has nine episodes about Barcelona. There are individual shows dedicated to food, pop culture, architecture, history, and other subjects related to the city.
David: You can subscribe to Cerca Podcast and again because spelling it’s CERCA on Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. Do you want to talk about books?
Melissa: Always. My first recommendation is The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. I feel a little bit silly recommending a book that’s won the Pulitzer Prize and the US National Book Award. But here we are.
David: Yeah. People need to know.
Melissa: People need to know. My endorsement is that this novel immersed me in the cold fog and the roaring wind of the Newfoundland shore. I was 100% in the harbour town of Killick-Claw, eating a squid burger and gossiping with the locals.
David: Yikes. A squid burger?
Melissa: Mm hmm. I could have also had seal flipper pie. But I think that would be a no for me. This story revolves around a pretty strange hero named Quoyle. He is a sad, quiet man who has been beaten up by life. The book’s first page tells us everything we need to know about him and any prose style. It is brilliant and I’m going to read it to you:
‘Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns.
Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the state university, hand clapped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence. Stumbled through his twenties and into his thirties learning to separate his feelings from his life, counting on nothing. He ate prodigiously, liked a ham knuckle, buttered spuds.
His jobs: distributor of vending machine candy, all-night clerk in a convenience store, a third-rate newspaperman. At thirty-six, bereft, brimming with grief and thwarted love, Quoyle steered away to Newfoundland, the rock that had generated his ancestors, a place he had never been nor thought to go.
A watery place. And Quoyle feared water, could not swim. Again and again, the father had broken his clenched grip and thrown him into pools, brooks, lakes, and surf. Quoyle knew the flavor of brack and waterweed.’
David: That’s some impressive writing. And also that’s really sad.
Melissa: It’s pretty bleak at the beginning.
Melissa: But also, I want to know more.
Melissa: In the next few chapters, we learn more about his dreary, meandering life and the tragedy that drives him to move to Newfoundland. He makes a road trip with his aunt and two daughters to their abandoned ancestral home. And this house is right on the shore facing the Atlantic. It’s held to the earth by cables because the wind is so strong.
Melissa: He gets a job at the local newspaper. It’s called the Gammy Bird.
David: The paper is called the Gammy Bird.
Melissa: That is the name for a duck found in Newfoundland. Quoyle is assigned to two beats. The first is the shipping news, which means he’s meant to go to the harbor, write down the names of the ships when they’ve arrived, when they’re leaving, what their cargo is. Anything interesting that happens with the crew. I like to think about the locals reading that with a cup of coffee in the morning and kind of living vicariously through the sailors who are coming in and out of the port.
Melissa: Quoyle is also assigned to car wrecks because it is the newspaper’s policy to have a photograph of a car wreck on the front page of the newspaper. Whether there has actually been a car wreck or not.
David: Quality publication.
Melissa: Well, that it’s a little yellow journalism, but also it’s the perfect example of the sort of local sensibility. Like it’s a little bit jaded, but there’s also this dark sense of the absurd, right? Quoyle is not really good at anything, and that includes writing. So his initial attempts at all of his writing assignments are pretty bad. But eventually he finds his footing as a reporter and begins to transform his life. And his job and his life are kind of on parallel tracks. He is digging himself out of the hole that his life has become. And the path to the new Quoyle, as you might expect, is not a smooth one.
Melissa: But he’s helped along by a cast of characters who are, at the beginning, quirky like that is the adjective you would use to describe them. And as you get to know them more, they reveal themselves to be real people with real feelings and their own emotional baggage that they’re bringing to the relationship.
David: So far, that sounds like a sort of a literary retelling of a fish out of water story.
Melissa: Right. Because there’s this romantic notion that you can just run away to your homeland and have this new life, and you do get a new life. But it’s a lot of work and it’s not a movie. I really enjoyed some of these characters. I could read a whole spin-off novel about Quoyles’s coworkers at the Gammy Bird. They are a trip and I would love a series of books about his his aunt. She is formidable, and she has her own back story of heartbreak and resilience. She’s an amazing character and we get a good amount of her, but I’d love to see her starring in her own book. Annie Proulx write us some sequels.
Melissa: So as you can tell from the bit I read you, her writing is very evocative and a lot of the scenes in the book have really stayed with me. They’re just images of terrible cruelty. His father is terrible. His wife is awful to him and like, it’s stunning. But then there are also moments that are so tender, it kind of made my heart hurt a little bit. Aw, it’s so good. There’s also a lot of suspense and adventure, which I was not anticipating when I started to read this book. There’s one bit that I absolutely loved. It kind of reminded me of that scene in Jaws when the three shark hunters are sitting below deck getting drunk and the salty sailor is telling stories. Quoyle goes out on a boat with his friend Billy, who is a coworker from the Gammy Bird. Billy is just regaling him with the history of the island and stories of pirates and the names of the little rock formations that surround the island because they can kill you. So they all have names. And he’s just spinning these yarns for Quoyle. And then when they’re on their way back, a fog bank rolls in and the fog is so thick that Quoyle can barely see Billy at the other end of the skiff. And Quoyle’s freaking out. He can’t swim. He’s afraid of the water. He can’t see anything. And he’s convinced that they’re going to smash into the rocks.
Melissa: And then he hears Billy singing this song. And the lyrics of the song are instructions for how to navigate through the rocks between them and the shore. Oh, my God. It was so good. It was like this just moment of trust in being a Newfoundlander and surrender to fate and the power of nature. And just white knuckling it into the shore. Oh, it’s so good. The storms in this book. They’re so powerful, they seem like sentient beings. And in some ways, the characters do take these storms personally.
David: Yeah, I would expect there’d be a whole lot of respect for nature in Newfoundland.
Melissa: There are also drownings and drunken brawls and a house being dragged across the ice by ropes and pirates and looting. There are maybe ghosts and a mysterious death. And there’s also a really strong sense of community, but also isolation at exactly the same time. That was so well done and so powerful to me. That is The Shipping News by Annie Proulx.
David: My book is Galore by Michael Crummey. This is a multigenerational family epic set in Newfoundland from the 1700s into the early 1900s. It starts out feeling almost like a fairy tale. There’s a man who’s found in a whale.
David: Yeah. The whale washes up and there’s a man in there. There is a woman who’s probably a witch. There’s a ghost. Michael Crummey, who’s a great writer, puts all of this down with the sense that it’s really happening. It is Canadian magical realism. The mute albino man who emerges from the dead whale on the beach has a lasting impact on the community.
Melissa: As he woul.
David: But he’s a character through the whole thing. The maybe-which is a lovely woman I’d like to spend time with. She was one of those characters that you run into in a book and you’re just like, I would like to know this person.
Melissa: Like the aunt in the shipping news.
David: Yes. Throughout the book, she is referred to only as Divine’s widow. Then a few hundred pages later, we’ve worked ourselves through four generations, and we’re in the time of hospitals and mass transit in World War, and the book is now more of a literary realism novel. It’s like the trick that David Mitchell does in Cloud Atlas. Different times have different voices, except that in this book it’s a slow fade. Some elements remain over time. A road named in the first chapter plays a significant role in the last chapter. The book starts on a holiday and ends on the same holiday, but the magic and superstition drain out. And science and industry come in. Emotionally, this made me yearn for years of superstition and starvation. Not sure if that was the intent, but that’s what I got to. So I’m going to read a page from early in the book. It’ll give you an idea of whether this will appeal to you. And it’s a nice story. There are three characters in this bit. There’s Selina. She’s married to a man named King-Me Sellars. He’s a fisherman. They call him King-Me because he cheats at checkers. And there’s Devine’s Widow, the local health care provider. This is in the 1700s, so her methods are homespun. Selina’s father made King-Me promise he would build Selina a house when they married. Unfortunately, King-Me hasn’t done that yet. Okay, here’s the passage.
‘Selina lived seven years in a plain stud tilt, the rough logs chinked with moss and clapboarded with bark. It had a dirt floor and a wooden roof sheeted with sod and was distinguished from the surrounding buildings only by a surfeit of windows, the one touch of grandeur King-me had managed. She birthed three children in the shelter while King-me promised to build next year, when the fish were yaffled and loaded aboard Spurriers’ vessels, when they came on a stretch of fine weather, next year.
On the morning of their seventh anniversary, Selina refused to get out of bed. —I’ll lie here, she told her husband, until there’s a door on that house to close behind me.
Sellers let her lie a week before the depth of her desperation came clear to him. She wouldn’t even allow him to sleep beside her, in his own bed. It seemed a lunatic strategy, the logic of someone unhinged. And in a desperate act of his own he sent a servant to the widow woman, asking her to do something to set Selina straight.
Devine’s Widow was all they had on the shore for doctoring. Her Christian name passed out of use in the decades after her husband was buried and only a handful could even remember what it was. She’d seen every malady the fallen world could inflict on a body and seemed to know a remedy or a charm against the pain of them all. King-me waited down at the store to leave the two women alone at the stud tilt where Selina was staging her moronic protest. When he saw Devine’s Widow walking home along the Tolt Road he caught her up and demanded to know what was wrong with his wife.
— Nothing a proper house wouldn’t fix, she said.
— You were asked to put her to rights.
— If I was you, Master Sellers, she said, I’d set to work with a hammer and saw.
The frame of the building with roof and windows was assembled in the space of a month. The morning Jabez Trim hung the front door, Selina got out of bed and dressed, packed her clothes into a trunk and walked the fifty yards to her new home. Selina’s House is how it was known and how people referred to it a hundred years after Sellers’ wife was buried and gone to dust in the French Cemetery.’
Melissa: That sounds so good.
David: Isn’t that nice?
Melissa: How have I not read this book?
David: It’s a pretty amazing book. It’s mostly a book about making a family and how hard that is both then and now. And it’s also about then and now and how they’re similar and different and how we swirl in on the same moments, time after time. The author is from Newfoundland and lives there still. He writes about it with a combination of grace and respect that made me want to go visit. He started out as a poet and that talent is evident in this book. He makes up words. He expresses things with brevity. That passage I just read you. I searched the internet for ‘plain stud tilt,’ thinking that that was a thing. And the only thing I found were people quoting that passage. Although I also know what a plain stud tilt is.
Melissa: Yeah, I can see it.
David: He also occasionally implies endings that might not come in the text but land in my head. I really love this book. This is Galore by Michael Crummey.
Melissa: My second recommendation is My Darling Detective by Howard Norman. This novel is sort of an homage to noir detective stories, but it’s not a whodunit. It combines elements of dramedy and historical fiction with a procedural mystery, and it uses that framework to explore family secrets, a passion for art, and the power of libraries. Plus, it’s got a really sweet love story thrown into the mix.
David: That’s a lot of elements I like.
Melissa: It’s a lot of stuff that he’s juggling and he does it really well. And the novel opens with a bang. It’s 1977 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. A world-famous photograph is being auctioned off. And just as the bidding is about to start, a woman flings a jar of ink at the photo.
Melissa: This results in the woman’s arrest. And we learn a few key facts in the aftermath. One, she is the former head librarian at the Halifax Free Library.
David: Wow. Okay. So she’s a woman of responsibility through a what was it, jar of ink?
Melissa: But she is now a patient at the Nova Scotia Rest Hospital because she had a mental breakdown at the library.
David: Oh, yeah. Hmm.
Melissa: Two: Her son, Jacob, works for a wealthy maven whose passion is collecting landmark photos. His mom’s little ink-splatting incident has now put his job in jeopardy.
Melissa: And three. The detective assigned to investigate the ink-flinging incident is Jacob’s fiancee. She is the darling detective of the title.
David: So you have a triangle setup right away?
Melissa: Yes. And also, in what was news to me, that famous photograph. The one defaced by the ink? It’s a real photo. It’s called ‘Death on a Leipzig Balcony’ and it was taken by Robert Capa. He was a Hungarian American war photographer who shot all of the major 20th century conflicts. For example, during World War II, he was at D-Day on Omaha Beach.
David: I think in your head, if you think about black and white shots from D-Day, those are shots he took.
Melissa: Yes. You’re probably seeing his photos in your imagination. A lot of people consider him to be the greatest combat photographer ever. I will, of course, put links to show notes to his photos. So Jacob’s mom had a violent outburst to deface this photo. And everyone is wondering why.
David: What’s up with that?
Melissa: What inspired her to run away from the rest hospital and attack this photograph? And then simultaneously, there’s an investigation into a cold case from 1945. That one implicates an anti-Semitic police officer in the murder of two Jewish citizens. And it turns out that that case has a mysterious connection to Jacob’s mom, too. While Jacob and his fiancee try to understand all of the stuff that is happening around them, we get to meet the idiosyncratic characters that are living in 1970s Halifax. So the tone of this book is a little bit like a screwball comedy film from the 1930s.
David: Oh, really?
Melissa: A little bit. It’s got snappy dialogue. It’s got surprising revelations. A couple of things happen that are like a little bit absurd. It would be a really good read alike with Spoonbendeors. Remember that book I talked about in our Chicago episode?
Melissa: That book also has sort of zany plot threads and then eventually feelings emerge and you kind of get punched in your solar plexus. This is like that a little bit. They would be a good reading pair. This is also one of those books that had me Googling a lot so I could see the photos that Jacob is trying to get at the auction. He goes after works by a photographer named Auguste Saltzman. He famously shot archaeological expeditions in Jerusalem in the 1860s. So you can imagine… the 1860s.
Melissa: And then French photographer Eugene Courret took some of the earliest photographs in Tahiti. So all of this was really fascinating to me. And Jacob’s boss does a master class on who these photographers are and why their photographs are so important. The relationships among the characters are not always smooth. The women in particular, both Jacob’s fiancee and his boss, who is this like fiery little old lady — They have conversations with him that are pretty tough and uncomfortable. I love how honest they were with him. But also it’s always said with love. But they are not easy on him.
Melissa: I really enjoyed spending time among these people. Another thing I enjoyed is that the story features real life locations in Halifax. A lot of the action centers around the Halifax Free Library. Jacob was actually born in the library.
Melissa: The character is also named John W Doull Bookseller, which is an actual used bookstore in Nova Scotia. You could go book shopping there right now.
David: It sounds very promising.
Melissa: And the characters eat a few times at the Wired Monk Bistro, which seems like the kind of place we would love. They have all day breakfast, they have fairtrade coffee and tea, and they have homemade pastries.
David: So these are places that existed in the seventies and still exist?
Melissa: Yes, correct. This local flavor makes the characters and the settings feel really lived in. It 100% feels like these people were just living their lives when we dropped in to see what they were up to. The author, Howard Norman, is from Ohio and grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
David: Oh, wow.
Melissa: I know. Very similar to you. But he spent 16 years living and writing in Canada and he was a firefighter with the Cree. I don’t remember you doing that.
David: I didn’t tell you about fighting fires with the Cree?
Melissa: Anyway, most of his books are set in the maritime provinces, and his familiarity with the history and the culture there is just woven throughout the book, and it all feels very comfortable and natural. At the start, this felt like kind of a light mystery read, but it really snuck up on me. The high jinks and the oddball characters kind of lure you into a sense of security and then boom! family secrets and World War II fallout.
Melissa: And some genuine emotions, even though some dark things surface. In the end, this book left me feeling really good about people and art and books, and you can’t really ask for more than that. Yeah, that is My Darling Detective by Howard Norman.
David: My next book is The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float by Farley Mowat. Farley Mowat was a Canadian author and environmentalist. I knew him because he wrote a book I read as a kid: Never Cry Wolf about his experience spending time with wolves in the Arctic. He wrote that book in 1963, and it became a movie 20 years later in 1983. I think I saw that movie four or five times when HBO had a free week and I had an open schedule and limited ambition. But I also read the book. I’m not a Canadian, but my sense is that Farley Mowat is something of a national folk hero. He made a career of writing about very Canadian things and in most cases being at least a little pissed off about it. His first book was about the Inuit of northern Canada. He thought they were vastly mistreated. He would go on to write about whaling, exploring the Arctic, and the history of Canada from the perspective of an environmentalist and a humanitarian. From what I read, he somehow has the gift of being angry but also respectful of the audience. I don’t walk away thinking, ‘Well, that guy’s mad.’ I walked away thinking, ‘Well, that guy’s got a point.’ In the end, Mowat wrote over 40 books that were translated into 52 languages. He sold more than 17 million copies. He has honorary doctorates from seemingly every university in Canada. I think they wanted him to show up and talk to them for a while. He died in 2014 at the age of 92.
David: Yeah. His obituary is called him passionate and outspoken, which I think is what they say when you won’t sit down or shut up. [laughter] This book, The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float, is about him buying a small two masted schooner and sailing it down the coast of the Atlantic provinces.
Melissa: Wow. Cool.
David: He pulls off a masterful trick in this book. He describes that trip. It is an awful trip. [laughter] Everything goes wrong. He’s persuaded into buying a lousy boat, which is poorly made and poorly kept and full of leaks. It smells. He and his partner almost sink it a few times. They get stuck in seemingly every port along the way. They have a contentious relationship with the boat. The original dream was to take it to South America, and they never get further than New Brunswick. And that takes a few years and multiple tries, and yet it still seems like it’s almost a good idea. I read it and I thought, ‘Well, if I was a completely different kind of person, we could get a boat and sail it down the cold, damp, foggy coast of Newfoundland. And that would be awesome.’
Melissa: I mean, it does sound like some kind of awesome.
David: Yeah. To get me, an urban introvert who’s never owned a sleeping bag, to think about something like that. That’s compelling writing.
Melissa: The one and only time I saw Dave on a sailboat —
Melissa: Face down, sprawled out, trying to grip the deck with his fingertips.
David: Accurate. For reasons. I did not trust the crew or the sailboat. And later they ripped the spinnaker.
Melissa: Yes. You were wise not to trust them. I’m not saying you weren’t.
David: Part of my affection for this book is from the people they encounter. There is a read that this book is about how Farley and his buddy, both ignorant of the danger that they’re in and frequently tipsy, manage the boat from port to port just in time for good-natured Newfoundlanders to save them from themselves. They might be the monsters in this story. And I feel like Farley would stand with me on that. Yeah, maybe we were. After a while, I started keeping a list. People along the way fix the boat sometimes without being asked. Buy them hardware and equipment. Stop to ask if he’s okay and then don’t take his word for it when he’s obviously not. They feed him many times. They offer advice and in one harbor they paint his ship and give him proper legal papers. Let me read you a couple of paragraphs from this book to give you a sense of his writing. This is from about a quarter of the way through. He and his partner are finally about to set sail, and now they come to the engine. Mowat writes:
‘Most of the essential equipment was aboard and had found a place in which to live, at least temporarily. There remained only one area of real uncertainty –—the engine. Since she looms all too large in what follows, I shall give a detailed introduction to her. She was a seven-horsepower, single-cylinder, make-and-break, gasoline-fuelled monster, built in the 1920’s from an original design conceived somewhere near the end of the last century. She was massive beyond belief, and intractable beyond bearing. In order to start her it was first necessary to open a priming cock on the cylinder head and introduce half a cup of raw gasoline. Then you had to spin her flywheel which was as big as the wheel of a freight car and weighed about the same.
There was no clutch and no gear box. When, and if, the engine started, the boat immediately began to move. She did not necessarily move forward. It is an idiosyncrasy of the make-and-breaks that when they start they may choose to turn over either to left or to right (which is to say either forward or astern), and there is no way known to man of predicting which direction it is going to be.
Once started, the direction can be reversed only by snatching off the spark-wire and letting the engine almost die. On its next-to-final kick it will usually backfire and in the process reverse itself, at which instant one must push the spark-wire back in place and hope that the beast will continue turning over. It seldom does. At least it seldom did for Jack and me. To properly dominate a make-and-break engine one must have grown up with it from childhood.
According to mythology the virtue of these engines lies in the fact that they are simple and reliable. Although this myth is widely believed I am able to report that it is completely untrue. These engines are, in fact, vindictive, debased, black-minded ladies of no virtue and any non-Newfoundlander who goes shipmates with one is either a fool or a masochist, and is likely both.’
Melissa: [laughter] That is amazing.
Melissa: Intractable beyond bearing.
David: Yeah. Yeah. He does a lot of that where he sort of like —
Melissa: And debased.
David: Yes. Where he’ll be going along sort of talking about worldly things. And every once in a while he slips in an SAT word. It’s really charming, the way he does it. I’m going to wrap and say I very much enjoyed the trip down the Atlantic Coast. Farley’s excellent company. The book is The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float by Farley Mowat.
Melissa: My final recommendation is Crow by Amy Spurway. This is the funniest and most life-affirming book about a woman with brain tumors that you’ll ever read. That’s my pitch. Enjoy it. Good night.
David: Wow. Huh.
Melissa: Okay, here’s the setup. I’ll tell you more.
David: I mean, I think you’ve done your job. I think that’s it. That’s all. We can just sit with that for a while and think about what that is. All right. Tell us more.
Melissa: All right. The story is narrated by our heroine, Crow. Her real name is Stacey Fortune. She’s from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. But she left behind her small-town life to be a career girl in Toronto. She’s got a fiance. She works in marketing. She wears high heels. It is all happening.
Melissa: And then things fall apart. Her heart is smashed into bits, and she learns that she has three inoperable and unpredictable brain tumors. So she returns to her childhood bedroom in her mom’s trailer, where her tumors cause rainbow-colored hallucinations, rubbery limbs, and frequent vomiting.
David: Wow. I can see where this gets funny.
Melissa: So funny. The conceit of the novel is that Crow is writing her memoir. And what makes it funny is that her voice is pitch perfect. She is sarcastic and self-deprecating with just enough vulnerability to make you really care about her.
Melissa: Early in the book, she says, ‘How do I tell people that my secret to dropping the extra 20 pounds I lugged around most of my life wasn’t hot yoga or detoxing. And then how do I fake optimism and pretend I haven’t leapfrogged over the normal seven stages of grief and invented my own single stage: Surly and Reckless Resignation to Being Doomed?
David: Uh. [laughter]
Melissa: So on her way to maybe dying. The universe throws a ton of life at Crow. She’s reunited with old friends and old flames. She butts heads with her gossipy Aunt Peggy. She has really loving spats with her mom. She gets high by the sea. She goes on a date. After she’s compelled to attend a funeral with her best friend, she says, ‘There are two things I now know for certain I do not want at my funeral: family brawls and flowers that smell like cat piss.’ She also attends her high school class reunion, which is held on Thanksgiving and has a Celtic theme.
Melissa: Yes. I mean, it’s just as terrible as you’re thinking right now. And it perfectly captured the kind of absurdity and awkwardness of returning home after a really long time away. Yeah, especially when you thought you’d never be back.
Melissa: You’re, like, living the high life, right? And then —
David: Yeah, yeah. Living in Mom’s extra bedroom.
Melissa: And her bedroom is exactly the same as it was when she left. There’s this one scene where she sits in her closet and just, like, takes out keepsakes and remembers things from high school. And it’s very poignant, but also so funny because she’s being so sarcastic.
Melissa: This book is peppered with that kind of insight into how weird small town life can be and what it’s like to grow up where everyone has a shared history and really long memories. All of the townspeople have nicknames, and they mostly earn them by doing stupid stuff when they were young. So there’s Willie Gimp, Duke the Puke — you can probably figure out how he got that name. Becky Chickenshit. Skroink. These are adults, but they’re still called these names because nobody has forgotten who they were in high school. Yeah, and they’re not going to let them forget either.
David: Yikes. Yeah.
Melissa: They’re also really lush descriptions of the Nova Scotia landscape because Crow is trying to take it all in again. She has a really strong attachment to the wharf in her town. There’s some really sweet and funny scenes there. And also like the surrounding mountains and the loch, when I looked at Google Images to see what Cape Breton looks like, oh, my gosh, it is stunning. I might crawl home there if I was sick and I’m not even from there. She also describes really vividly the industrial part of Cape Breton, which they all refer to as Town Town.
David: The industrial part is Town Town.
Melissa: Yeah, because it’s like more of a town than their town. It’s the Town Town. Yeah, there’s a mall. There’s kind of crappy coffee shops.
David: Got it.
Melissa: There’s a busted coal mine.
David: You want anything? I’m going to Town Town.
Melissa: Exactly. That’s where the hospital is. That crow goes to where she has all of her tests done and gets all of her bad news. Early on in the book, Crow describes her family as ‘a long line of lunatics and criminals,’ and there’s an implication that her family is somehow cursed. That comes up in both really silly and moving ways throughout the story, and it was really cool to read this one and The Shipping News, because there’s also a sense that Coyle’s family is cursed, but the way it’s handled in the two books is really different. That was kind of a cool reading experience.
Melissa: Crow’s maybe death is making her much more brave about understanding her life and her family, and she learns that she was really wrong about things that she thought were fundamental truths about herself and her family. It is a feel-good story. She comes to realize that maybe her hometown wasn’t such a terrible place to be from after all.
Melissa: I’m going to reiterate it. So you don’t think it was a mistake the first time I said it? This is a really good time. Crow is the kind of friend who’s very snarky and prickly with everyone else, but she shows you her vulnerable underbelly, and so you feel very loyal towards her even when she messes up and you will, like, defend her to the death if necessary. Yeah, that’s the kind of feeling Crow inspired in me. This book was put out by a small publisher in Canada, and it actually won the Independent Publisher Award for Best First Book in Fiction.
Melissa: Yeah, but it is only available in paperback, and it is very expensive on Amazon. So I would say look at your library, but also you can buy a digital copy directly from the publisher. It is always great when you can buy a book directly from a small publisher. I urge you to do that because this book about death will make you feel very much alive. It’s Crow by Amy Spurway. I’ll put a link so you can buy it in the show notes.
David: Those are five books we love set in Atlantic Canada. Stop by and take a look at our show notes for all sorts of wonderful bits about Atlantic Canada, including videos and photos and links.
Melissa: The photos — you can feel the fresh air in your face and you definitely want to see the Fogo Island Inn. So definitely go to show notes.
David: And the link to the Newfoundland tourism videos.
Melissa: Yeah, they’re so good.
David: They’re so good. Mel, where are we headed on our next episode?
Melissa: Our next episode is our final theme episode of season four. And it was suggested by one of our patrons. Such a good idea. We’re exploring secret passages.
David: Thank you for listening, and we’ll talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of Jay Yuan/Shutterstock.
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