The Voyage of Freydis, by Tamara Goranson

The Voyage of Freydis takes the tale of Freydis Eriksdottir, a minor character who is mentioned in a brief but enignmatic fragment of the sagas about Greenlanders making their way to the place they called Vinland — now presumed to be the Norse settlement site at L’anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland — in the 11th century. Because women are so often nameless and absent in these types of historical accounts, it’s almost irresistible for historical fiction writers to try to build a story around the rare woman who does have a name and is depicted as doing something. Tamara Goranson is not the first writer to take on Freydis’s story; in fact, I read Joan Clark’s novel Eriksdottir, also about Freydis. However, that book came out in 1994 and I probably read it then or within a few years afterwards, so I sadly can’t remember anything about Clark’s take on the story.

The details that are captured about Freydis (a sister of the famous explorer Leif “the Lucky” Erikson) in the sagas are hard to make a sympathetic story out of, as she is depicted as ruthlessly murdering a bunch of fellow explorers. A good novelist will tell the story so that her actions makes sense in context; a good novelist will also be aware that what comes down to us in sagas and historical records is not always an accurate reflection of how real people might have behaved.

In this novel, Goranson has given us a believable and sympathetic Freydis trapped in an abusive marriage to a brutal man. The lengths she goes to to get free and stay free from her husband are what drive the novel’s action. There were times when the language, especially in dialogue, did not draw me into the story as much as I’d hoped, and a few possible anachronisms that pulled me out of the story. But as a reader and writers who is always interested in the erased or mistold stories of women in history, I was very interested in this take on the Viking story.

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Constant Nobody, by Michelle Butler Hallett

It’s hard to believe I haven’t already posted a review of this wonderful novel, which recently won Atlantic Canada’s most prestigious literary prize: the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award. I had already read it, but, as is often the case with those of us who live in a small and close-knit literary community, I read it in manuscript form and offered some critique to the author, who is a friend. However, reading the finished book was such a completely different and much more overwhelming experience.

At its most basic level, Constant Nobody is a literary spy story that begins against the background of the Spanish Civil War, when British spy Temerity West has a chance encounter with Russian spy Kostya Nikto. Months later, when Kostya is back home in Moscow, they meet again. Temerity is now living the exceptionally dangerous life of a British agent undercover in Stalin’s USSR when Kostya finds her and (maybe) saves her life. For long, agonizing weeks, as Temerity hides out in Kostya’s apartment, the two are bound together by secrets, lies, intrigue, attraction, and danger.

It’s a love story, of course, but it’s so much more than that: these two people are drawn together, and owe much to each other, but can never come close to trusting each other. In fact, they can trust nobody: one of the things this novel does most strikingly is recreate the claustrophobic atmosphere of Moscow under Stalin’s purges. Kostya is a respected KGB officer, yet neither he nor any of his fellow officers can feel any sense of security, nor can any of them trust each other. Kostya’s privileged life is almost as precarious as Temerity’s illicit presence in the city; the dreaded knock could come on anyone’s door, at any moment.

This is a beautifully-written and tightly constructed novel of intrigue, suspense, and thoughtful reflection all interwoven into the story of two unforgettable characters.

Scratching River, by Michelle Porter

Scratching River is an appropriate follow-up to Porter’s Approaching Fire, though there is more prose than poetry in the current book. As with Approaching Fire, reflections on the natural landscape — in this case, the geography of rivers rather than fire — are interspersed with, and serve as metaphors for, a family memoir. The story centres around the narrator’s brother, who lives with both schizophrenia and autism, and the horrific abuse he suffered in a care facility. This intimate story is set against the broader background of a Metis community dealing with intergenerational trauma and connection to history and land. As always, Porter’s work is beautifully written and thought-provoking.

When We Lost Our Heads, by Heather O’Neill

It’s hard to know quite how to categorize this book. At first glance into its pages, it’s a story of two exceptional young girls group up in late 19th-century Montreal, whose intense friendship is blown apart by a horrible act of (semi) accidental violence. Marie and Sadie both go on to live larger-than-life lives, and when those lives intersect, there is passion, decadence, and more violence. The writing is crisp, direct, and sparse, and the story explores, on many different levels, the idea of women’s power and what a revolution of women might look like.

I say it can be categorized as historical fiction — a specific historical place and time is indicated in the earliest chapters — and yet the book feels unmoored from history. Indeed, it might almost be described as an alternative history, for as the story unrolls we realize that while it might nominally be set in 1880s Montreal, it’s not really tied to the events or people of that place and time; huge events happen in the story that never happened in the real Montreal, and many of the characters’ names, personalities, and fates, are deliberate echoes of the French revolution a century earlier — as, of course, is the title of the novel. The novel’s momentum builds towards a second French (Canadian) revolution: one concerned as much with sex as with social class, yet one that ultimately feels smaller and more personal, less earth-shattering, than the real Revolution that inspires it.

At times this novel feels like a dark comedy; at other times like an alternative history; at other times like an allegory. It’s always compelling and thought-provoking, even if it can be hard to pin down.

This Is How We Love, by Lisa Moore

This new novel by Lisa Moore, arguably Newfoundland’s best known contemporary fiction writer, is (at least on one level) a story about a young man who is the victim of a violent crime, and the mother who makes her way through the snowstorm of a century to be by his side in hospital.

It’s much more than that, of course: most of the story unfolds through flashbacks, though the viewpoints of three main characters: Jules, the mother, Xavier, her son, and Trinity, a girl who grew up in their neighbourhood who was briefly a childhood friend of Xavier’s and re-appears unexpectedly in his life as a young adult.

Stories and scenes from their past, not unfolding chronologically, are layered over one another with the densely detailed sensory images that any reader of Moore’s fiction is familiar with. These memories and scenes, laid next to and sometimes overlapping one another like collage, do exactly what the title promises: explore the ways we love the ones we love. What love is like in families, in blended families, in chosen families, in wildly dysfunctional families — all these variations and permutations are on display here.

I think this is my favourite Lisa Moore book partly because it felt so close to my own experience and concerns. Moore and I are the same age and live in the same city, and she creates a lovingly detailed St. John’s in this novel, entirely recognizable to anyone who lives here (it’s just my nit-picky brain that has to chime in, whenever a local author does this, to notice the few details that have been changed for the author’s own reasons: no other sensible reader would break the stride of this story to say “But why are Xavier and Trinity at Mary Queen of Peace for elementary school? They’re not zoned for there, are they?” although to be fair I have had St. John’s readers ask me the same kinds of questions about choices I’ve made in my own books, so maybe it’s not just me).

Apart from the broader details of life in downtown St. John’s during the span of decades covered by this novel, all of which were recognizable, there’s the extremely specific detail of Snowmageddon, the January 2020 storm that, for residents of the St. John’s area, put us into “state of emergency” mode two months before the pandemic started. The closed airport, the snow-clogged streets, the power outages, the locked hospital doors — it’s all familiar, and rendered in that beautifully specific detail that makes a great story come alive.

The specific pull of love between a mother and a young-adult son — the worry you feel, the boundaries you observe or violate — is also very close to my own concerns and something I’ve written about recently, so this book hit home for me on that level too, as I imagine it would for many parents of young adults. If it’s really important to you to have a story unfold in a straight-forward, linear fashion, or if you don’t like writers who linger for a long time on loving, detailed descriptions of sensory images or moments from a scene, then this novel might not be for you — and that’s fair; no novel is for everybody. But if you’re willing to travel with a skilled writer like Moore along the winding path that leads up to a single, life-changing incident, and along the way experience a thousand vivid images of how we love — then I recommend this novel, which I found completely absorbing.

Tracing Ochre: Changing Perspectives on the Beothuk, edited by Fiona Polack

This is a scholarly book — a collection of essays on the theme of the Beothuk, the narrative around their extinction, and what that means for how Indigenous people are perceived in Newfoundland and Labrador, among other things — but quite accessible to the interested general reader. It was loaned to me by an Indigenous friend who was helping me think through the way Indigenous characters and questions are addressed in some of my historical writing. The book is subtitled “Changing Perspectives on the Beothuk,” and reading it really did change my perspective.

What did I, as a settler child growing up St. John’s, Newfoundland, learn about the Indigenous people who lived in our part of the world before my ancestors got here? I learned that they were a people called the Beothuk, that they became extinct as a direct result of the actions of my English ancestors — something we should always feel ashamed of — and that the last Beothuk, Shawnawdithit, died in 1829, leaving the only record of her culture and language with a Scotsman named William Cormack in whose house she resided near the end of her life.

I did not learn the mythology that the Mi’kmaq helped settlers to “wipe out” the Beothuk or were enemies of the Beothuk, but that may be because (and I honestly don’t know which is worse), I didn’t learn anything about the Mi’kmaq, or about the Innu of Labrador either, until I was a young adult. I knew there were what we once called “Eskimos” — Inuit people — in Labrador, but did not learn anything about Mi’kmaq and Innu people, two First Nations groups living in the province where I grew up and got my education.

In recent years I’ve become aware of some of the ways in which the “Beothuk extinction” story, and the way it’s told, have been challenged, and of the likelihood that there are people today who may identify as Mi’kmaq, as Innu, as white/English, or as mixed-race, who have Beothuk ancestors. The once-popular idea that Beothuk lived entirely to themselves and all died out without any of them ever taking refuge among or intermarrying with other Indigenous people or settlers, now seems more unlikely.

But what does this mean, in terms of the way we understand “extinction”? This what this book really helped me to think about (including challenging some ideas in ways that were uncomfortable for me, which is always good for learning). Several of the essays in this book (one that particularly stood out for me was Lianne C. Leddy’s “Historical Sources and the Beothuk: Questioning Settler Interpretations”) forced me to think about how the story of Beothuk extinction functions as a guilt-inducing myth, but also as both a romantic and a convenient myth, for the province’s British-descended settler population.

When I say “myth” I don’t mean it’s entirely untrue. No author in this volume would, I think, debate the fact that the loss of the Beothuk nation as a distinct identity, the loss of Beothuk language and history, was a huge and significant loss. The fact that people are alive today who share DNA with Beothuk ancestors does not in any way erase or excuse the genocide of a people. But by framing our story of Beothuk/settler interactions in terms of the Beothuk as a “vanished people,” we deny their continuity with and similarity to other Indigenous groups in the region, often going so far as to frame it in terms of, as Maura Hanrahan writes in her essay, “Good Indians and Bad Indians.” The essay is subtitled: “Romanticizing the Beothuk and Denigrating the Mi’kmaq.”

No white settler today (except someone who was out as a horrendous racist) would say aloud “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” as several white Americans in the 19th century, including Teddy Roosevelt, are reputed to have said. But there is something convenient in the myth of the “good dead Indians” — the mysterious, noble people of the past we are so sorry we accidentally made extinct — contrasted with the complicated, messy, living Indigenous people of today, who come complete with land claims and social problems and, in many cases, mixed Indigenous/settler heritage so that we are able to question them on whether they are really “Indian enough” to deserve the respect we posthumously give the Beothuk.

These are tangly and difficult questions here in Newfoundland, where settler-Newfoundlanders are quick to criticize if Mi’kmaq leaders are perceived as “speaking for the Beothuk,” while sometimes being quite willing to do that speaking ourselves. This book made me question many of the narratives I had absorbed consciously and unconsciously: to wonder why I knew so much about the version of the Beothuk story based on James Howley’s work, for example, and had never heard of the work of Frank Speck, which presents the idea of Beothuk “extinction” in a rather different light. Why I knew the stories of Demasduit and Shawnawdithit so well, but not the story of Santu Toney (on whom this book contains an excellent essay).

That my settler ancestors moved onto this land as if it was theirs for the taking; that they pushed the Indigenous Beothuk population to the point of extinction while marginalizing or assimilating the Mi’kmaq, Innu, and Inuit populations — these are not just historical tragedies, but historical crimes. What this book does is question and explore the stories we tell about these histories, and how the way we think about the Beothuk people impacts our understanding of Indigenous people in Newfoundland and Labrador today.

Talking to Canadians, by Rick Mercer

A family member gave my husband Rick Mercer’s memoir Talking to Canadians for Christmas. So a lot of Christmas vacation was spent listening to Jason burst out laughing while reading this book, then having him go, “Oh, I’ve just gotta read you this bit … oh, just one more bit …” while reading sections of the book.

In keeping with my policy that the best way to enjoy a comedian’s memoir is on audiobook, read by the author, I decided I would like to hear the book read aloud — but by Rick Mercer, and also in order from beginning to end.

This is as funny and thoughtful as any Rick Mercer fan would expect his book to be, with great anecdotes about growing up in Newfoundland and breaking into show business on the local scene before eventually making it big on national TV. My only disappointment came when I realized the book was nearing an end and Rick was just getting ready to launch his solo TV show. That was when it dawned on me this book was not going to cover the long and epic run of the Mercer Report — that will have to wait for another book! Thoroughly enjoyable!

All the Seas of the World, by Guy Gavriel Kay

With Guy Gavriel Kay’s latest novel, we are in the same world and with some of the same characters as in his last book, A Brightness Long Ago, soon after the events of that novel. It’s not quite a sequel though; while some characters recur from Brightness, the focus is on two new characters, a pair of sea-going traders — one male, one female; one Kindath, one Jaddite — who take on an incredibly risky job: to assassinate a ruler.

Things don’t go quite according to plan, but in some ways they go better — the two enterprising traders/adventurers, Rafel and Nadia, end up with unforeseen wealth, influence, and connections, even though they technically don’t complete the job they were hired to do. The rest of the novel is the unfolding of the consequences of that action, in the lives of the two main characters and many peripheral ones.

Everything I’ve said in previous reviews about this whole cycle of GGK novels — beginning with my all-time favourite, The Lions of Al-Rassan, continuing through Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors, and bringing the story hundreds of years forward into the Renaissance era with Children of Earth and Sky, A Brightness Long Ago, and now this book — applies here. The richness of this almost-historical-fiction in a sort of parallel earth with two moons and many striking similarities to real history, the extremely light touch with which fantasy/folklore/mythology/the supernatural is layered into the story — all of that. The writing is beautiful, the characters memorable, and this was another unforgettable addition to the world Kay is creating in these stories.

Last Hummingbird West of Chile, by Nicholas Ruddock

This is a beautiful, evocative book that does some really unexpected things with point of view. Beginning in a stuffy, unhappy, upper-class Victorian English household with the birth of two children, the story eventually circumnavigates the globe and takes characters and readers on a series of adventures. Along the way, the point of view shifts, not just among several human characters but also to such unexpected first-person narrators as a tree, a donkey, and the titular hummingbird. It’s witty and it’s clever, but it’s also deeply insightful and heartfelt. Early on I was thinking that with so many point of view characters and so little time spent with each of them, they might not be developed enough for me to care deeply about any of them. But then a character death nearly made me cry and I realized that author Ruddock had achieved the difficult task of creating, with just a few handfuls of paragraphs, characters so real and believable that I cared intensely about their fate.

Though the style is different, much of the subject matter and theme of this book reminded me of Marina Endicott’s The Difference, one of my favourite novels of the last few years. Like that novel, much of that one is spent on the oceans of the world, in the age when travel by sail is soon to give way to travel by steamship. Also like The Difference, The Last Hummingbird reflects thoughtfully on the damage and dangers of colonialism — not just in the violence European humans have inflicted on other humans, but i the violence humans have inflicted on the natural world — right down to the hummingbirds.

I loved reading this book.

New Girl in Little Cove, by Dahmnait Monaghan

This is a delightful novel that somehow flew under my radar when it came out last year. I read it in less than 24 hours and found that, while generally light in tone and heart, it was completely compelling.

The story is set in 1985, when Rachel arrives from Ontario to teach French in a tiny Newfoundland outport. It’s pre-moratorium, so most of the men in the community are still fishing, and it’s pre-end-of-denominational-education, so Rachel has to cross her fingers and promise she’s an observant Catholic before she can get the job at St. Jude’s. Even more troubling, the local priest sits her down for a little talking-to about the importance of upholding Catholic values in her teaching, in her encounters with students, and in her personal life — intrusive, but perhaps relevant as the previous French teacher ran away with the previous priest.

There’s lots of great local characters, insightful and humourous depictions of rural Newfoundland life in that era, painfully accurate scenes of the trials and tribulations of being a first year teacher, and a gently-blossoming romance to sweeten the story. There were definitely elements here I could relate to — my first year teaching was 1986, the year after Rachel’s, although in my case the journey was in the opposite direction, from Newfoundland to Ontario.

Author Dahmnait Monaghan, who lives in the UK but has Newfoundland roots, hits that sweet spot that so many of the best writers of what’s often dismissively called “women’s fiction” are good at: a light tone with lots of humour occasioned by Rachel’s fish-out-of-water status in a fishing community, but with that lightness, touching on some deep topics. Yes, this is about a mainlander finding her place in a tiny remote outport, about a first-year teacher learning the ropes, about a lapsed Catholic trying to fit in in a place where everyone, especially a teacher, is expected to show up for Mass every Sunday. But it’s also about recovering from grief, and about the tough moral choices you sometimes have to make when your personal convictions chafe against what your job demands. It’s also, while being amusing, a loving and respectful look at Newfoundland outport life as it was 35 years ago. One of the strongest parts of the novel is Rachel’s reaction to the Newfoundland dialect around her (which is very well rendered, not always the case in fictional portrayals of outport life) and how she learns, or is taught, to question her own assumptions about that dialect. She’s come to teach French, but she finds herself learning another language as well.

Sweet, sincere, and surprisingly thought-provoking in spots, New Girl in Little Cove was a quick read and one I found completely absorbing.