How to make seal-flipper pie
Janette Turner Hospital
- The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx
Fourth Estate, 337 pp, £14.99, November 1993, ISBN 1 85702 205 X
‘The land God gave to Cain’ was how Jacques Cartier, sailing under patronage of the French king in 1534, described what came to be Canada’s province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Cain is exactly the kind of character who interests Annie Proulx, and Cain’s home turf is the natural setting for her fiction. Cain more or less shows up, under the name of Loyal Blood, as the protagonist of her first novel Postcards. (Blood is a Vermont dairy farmer who accidentally kills his girlfriend and has to spend the rest of his life on the lam, keeping in tenuous touch with his hard-scrabble family by sending postcards.) The land God gave to Cain is the site of Proulx’s second novel, The Shipping News.
Vol. 16 No. 6 · 24 March 1994
Janette Turner Hospital’s review of my book, The Shipping News (LRB, 10 February), is built on her personal opinions, as are many book reviews, and she is entitled to them. What she is not entitled to is the free-wheeling imputation that ‘it seems certain The Outport People lies behind The Shipping News, a shape seen through fog, as it were,’ and her printed suspicion that I wrote The Shipping News dependent on ‘a submerged memory of Mowat’ is erroneous and insulting. I have never read Claire Mowat’s The Outport People.
I did, however, read scores and scores of first-hand accounts and sociological studies of outport life, made eight trips to Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula over a period of years, listening and observing, and have good friends in several outports. The Newfoundland described in The Shipping News is based on those sources, and those sources only. The protagonist’s name, Quoyle, is an archaic spelling for ‘coil’, as a coil of rope, and I first saw this spelling on page 602 of the 1944 edition of The Ashley Book of Knots. I chose the word ‘Quoyle’ for its symbolic meaning and for its relation to the knot lore (bows to Ashley) that threads the book, not because someone else had once written a book about characters named Quayle and I was too dim-witted to come up with anything but a variation of this name. If Hospital sees ‘startling correspondences’ between The Shipping News and The Outport People, the likely reason is because both books accurately reflect outport life and temper.
The startling correspondences she ticks off were fairly common events of old outport life – though they strike outsiders as dramatic and even unique. Dragging a house over the ice has been described many times by outporters and depicted in photographs and lithographs. Houses were floated and towed astern as well. Both were practical ways to move shoreside houses in a place with few roads. Boats were sometimes smashed and houses burned: Newfoundlanders can have a quick hand at getting rid of what is no longer wanted. (I was in Newfoundland a month ago and discovered that three sturdy old houses still standing two years ago, one of them something of a physical model for the Quoyle house in The Shipping News, had been deliberately burned.) Houses set apart from others can be found in every outport because of the vagaries of shoreline indentation. There are Scotch-drinking yacht-owners the world over; they were in The Shipping News with their boat simply to give the aunt something to upholster. I want to be clear about this – The Shipping News is neither related to nor modelled on The Outport People in any way, standing or sitting, conscious or unconscious. And imaginative speculation is not the best book reviewing tool.
E. Annie Proulx