Black Water Born is the story of two young lovers, Lucky and Helen, in the tiny Newfoundland community of Burgoyne’s Cove in 1913. Lucky is seen as an outsider in the community although he has grown up there, since his pregnant mother drifted ashore after falling off a ship and died after giving birth to him. Helen’s family doesn’t fully accept Lucky, and a lover’s quarrel leads to chain of increasingly exciting and improbable events as Lucky goes off to St. John’s to seek his fortune and Helen longs to get him back.
The author, Fara Spence, is Newfoundland-born though she now lives “away.” In many ways she has done an excellent job of capturing the feel and flavour of early 20th-century St. John’s though some details are jarring. One character in particular, Erik Skinner, reacts to other characters in a way that struck me as being completely impossible in a man of his era and social background.
While I have a problem with actions and characters that seem out of place in a historical narrative, I don’t have a problem with authors changing the details of a historical event for dramatic effect, which Fara Spence does by placing two of her characters in the middle of the infamous Newfoundland sealing disaster. An author’s note at the end explaining her fictional additions to this well-known true story would have been welcome.
After being dubious at the start, I was eventually drawn in to Black Water Born and wanted to see how the story of Lucky and Helen would turn out. Despite some plot twists that seemed improbable, I enjoyed the places to which the story took me and the resolution was satisfying. Spence’s writing skills seemed too weak in some places for a potentially powerful story — both narrative and dialogue often sounded awkward, and she often had characters state very obviously things that could have been conveyed more subtly. Still, I think most readers will find themselves rooting for Lucky, Helen and their friends, and enjoying the convincing details that add verisimilitude to this picture of life in Newfoundland a century ago.