A Captivating Island Where History Abounds
by Noreen Golfman, Memorial University
Postage stamp depicting a Maritime town street scene, June 7, 1978
Because of its long oral tradition, Newfoundland is inhabited by people who are used to talking and listening, and sharing anecdotes, fables, and jokes-material that directly feeds fiction and poetry.
Modern writers have been trying to capture the complex history of the island. The challenge is best documented by Patrick O'Flaherty's The Rock Observed (1979), a detailed survey of the literature about Newfoundland since its discovery by John Cabot in 1497. Whether writers have rendered the place faithfully or "distorted" it, many attempt to get it right.
Postage stamp entitled Newfoundland Ditty, September 7, 1993
The spare poetry of E.J. Pratt vividly evokes the power of the island's geography, against which humanity is a frail presence. Above all, the sea is a massive force, especially menacing in Pratt's epic poem, The Titanic (1935), or in his lyric "Erosion" (1930-1931), where an "hour of storm" etches "granite seams / Upon a woman's face" (Collected Poems of E.J. Pratt, 1946).
The sea is vital to the characters of Random Passage (1992) by Bernice Morgan. A milestone of historical romance, the novel traces the settlement and development of outport life in the 19th century. Morgan's characters endure punishing hardships and tragedy, but the story centres on the sheer will and the courage to survive.
Outport life in Petty Harbour, Newfoundland and Labrador, September 13, 1886
In contrast, Ed Riche imagines outport life as a comic possibility, not as a place of struggle and defeat. In Rare Birds (2001), his hapless hero and his eccentric neighbours do their best to dupe gullible tourists who have travelled to the island to see its exotic offerings.
Michael Crummey's River Thieves (2001) captures the tragic history of the Beothuk, an extinct Aboriginal people formerly inhabiting the island. Other writers of historical fiction have taken on the political realities of Newfoundland history. Wayne Johnston's Colony of Unrequited Dreams (1999) imagines the life of the province's famous premier who brought Newfoundland into Confederation, Joey Smallwood, by painting a vivid picture of the social and cultural world in which he played such a huge part.
Writing about Newfoundland often looks to the past to imagine and understand the present. With such a long, distinctive history, this trend will likely continue.