This is the first known novel ever published by a Newfoundland woman, and it’s amazing that I only heard of it last year. Just because of its place in history, it deserves to be better known, and the editor of this edition, Iona Bulgin, has done an excellent job in the footnotes and preface of putting Anastasia English’s work in its proper context in the history of Newfoundland literature.
For its own sake, divorced from its historical context, the book is a bit forgettable, as the story is quite a cliche romance about a young girl from a humble family background who wins the friendship of a girl of higher social status and the love of a well-off young man — but not without the usual amount of hardships, misunderstandings, tears and trials. Everything works out perfectly predictably, but what makes the book worth reading are the glimpses of social history you get between the predictable lines of the romance. A modern writer could write a historical novel that’s a far better story with more believable characters, set in this time period (and I hope I have done just that, with That Forgetful Shore…), but there’s something a later writer composing historical fiction can never capture as well as a contemporary writer, something about the essential feel of a time and place, not only small domestic details (which you can research) but attitudes and values (which are so much harder to reproduce without imposing one’s own values upon them). Only a Fisherman’s Daughter won’t rock your reading world or anything, but if you’re at all interested in Newfoundland literature or the history of women’s writing in this part of the world, you definitely should not bypass this book.