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ARCHIVED - Canada: A Literary Tour

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Literary Cities

St. John's

A Fertile Source of Fiction
by Noreen Golfman, Memorial University

Travel writer Jan Morris wrote, in O Canada!: Travels in an Unknown Country (1990), that St. John's was the most entertaining town in North America: "windy, fishy, anecdotal, proud, weather-beaten, quirky, obliging, ornery, and fun."

White 37-cent stamp with a colour illustration of an outline of a harbour and a city skyline

Postage stamp depicting St. John's skyline, Newfoundland and Labrador, July 22, 1988


Well over 400 years old, St. John's is an exciting provincial capital and a fertile source of fiction. Paul O'Neill's The Oldest City (2003) is a Bible of its rich landscape, with larger-than-life fishermen, eminent politicians, greedy merchants, notable church figures, and regular working-class people contributing to the city's economy and culture.

Local authors draw on both the long history and robust culture of St. John's in a variety of ways, with the city often taking on the characteristics of a colourful personality. Some even label the fiction about the city as "Newfoundland Gothic," suggesting unusually dark forces at play in people's lives.

Perhaps the best example of this approach is Lisa Moore's Alligator (2006), where the lead characters are shaped by the city's imposing presence. Moore's novel even works the annual summer plague of spanworms into the plot, infusing the novel with a strong mythical experience of place.

Black and white photograph of a street, rooftops and a harbour

View of Water Street, St. John's, Newfoundland, 1886


Paul Bowdring's novella, The Night Season (1997), was one of the first modern works of fiction to animate the old winding streets of the city as a psychological landscape. Since the main character wanders in search of meaning, it is fitting that he should do so enveloped in the thick fog of late December.

Many writers include St. John's in their narratives as a counterpoint to rural and outport communities beyond its borders. A fine example of this device is Michael Crummey's The Wreckage (2005), a haunting romance that traces generations of Newfoundlanders during and after the Second World War. Here the city is both a place of refuge and oppression, where characters find and then lose love.

In Michael Winter's This All Happened (2001), St. John's is as hip an environment as any young person could want-beautiful in all seasons, a place where passions among good friends and lovers thrive as nowhere else.