The Shipping News
Late again but, as always, I have an excuse. The year ended almost a month ago and I have still not, until now, posted my Book-It list final review. In fact, I never posted for November either (no excuse and so I am sorry about that one). There is a reason I didn’t post for December in December, two reasons really. The first is, I didn’t read The Fault in Our Stars (John Green) so I could not have reviewed this one. Why, you ask? Because I was sidetrack by an old book that came my way. I picked up this tome and it, figuratively, called to me. The book that called was The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx.
At the Book Garden we are blessed with a fast growing horde of ‘previously loved’ books and many times those which cross my desk I have not yet read. For these I make a note and try to find a way to schedule them in. Unfortunately, those higher up on my list tend to be high on our customer lists as well. In other words; they don’t stay in the store long. This is why when I heard the sirens singing of boats in Newfoundland I not only placed The Shipping News at the top of my list, I took it home with me and placed it in front of my December Book-It entry.
Glad I did. Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Shipping News was published in 1993. I am not sure how I would have taken to it if I read it way back then. Now, simple put, I loved it.
One of the hardest things to do, and what every writer strives for, is to bring the reader into the world they are creating. In a sense, allow the reader to relocate for a while to the locations within the story. Ms. Proulx does this very well. The Shipping News is like an encyclopedia of information starting with the local vernacular (slang) which she uses to post a treatise (or two) on the anthropology of those living (lore) in her designed world. The way her Newfoundlanders talk, the most factual accounts seem like everyday gossip, of course it is usually over a supper of snow crab, cod cheeks, lobster salad and seal-flipper stew.
The protagonist is Quoyle. Quoyle is Joe average, or possible, a bit lower down on the scale. He doesn’t seem to fit in where competition is the norm. He is described as being heavy and his facial features never seem to draw positive attention “head shaped like a crenshaw, no neck, reddish hair” and “features as bunched as kissed fingertips.” He grows up in New York State and by luck or by accident he marries Petal Bear which leads to a month of fiery happiness followed by six years of suffering.
When his two-timing wife dies in a terrible car accident (shortly after she tries to sell their two children) Quoyle is a mess. He now is left with two young daughters, Bunny and Sunshine and no real sense of self. Bunny is plagued with nightmares (of a snarling white dog) that match in intensity Quoyle’s hallucinatory re-enactments of Petal’s grisly death. Life seems stripped of hope until Aunt Agnis arrives and persuades him to travel back to their ancestral home in Newfoundland. The aunt, as she is often referred to, regales Quoyle with stories of their Newfoundland ancestors; Like the tale of his grandfather who had drowned at age 12 after having already sired Quoyle’s father. The stories were both mesmerizing and disquieting and draw Quoyle in, albeit with some hesitation.
Quoyle takes the bait and is soon driving off to Newfoundland with his daughters and his aunt in search of his ancestral house. This is not a story of the noble lad returning to reclaim the family fortune. This is obvious when the ‘ancestral home’ is first encountered. It is a dilapidated place, isolated miles down a barely passable road from the town of Killick-Claw. Quoyle, being, if nothing else, pragmatic had obtained work at the local news paper The Gammy Bird, before he had embarked on the quest.
The story keeps returning to the offices of The Gammy Bird. The staff are true brigands of outback journalism and Ms. Proulx pitches it with strikes. There is Nutbeem, who steals foreign news from the radio; Tert Card, the rewrite man; and Jack Buggit, the belligerent editor. Their spontaneous monologues, spiced with the local patois, are nothing less than oral literature put down on paper for us foreigners to behold.
Winter comes near and Quoyle learns an interesting lesson. The dilapidated ancestral home which he spent a good deal of money repairing is unlivable in the winters. He has to close it up and go searching for a warm, safe place in Killick-Claw for him and his girls for the coming season. Claustrophobic winter arrives, locking in the town, icing over the coves. This is where Ms. Proulx juxtaposes the harsh months where hibernation is the norm with Quoyle slowly digging out from his own past. He begins to court the all but silent Wavey Prowse, herself widowed by a drowning, as he fends off visions of his children’s mother all the while deepening his devotion and delight in his daughters. He seems to be calming, finding peace and at the same time the children and aunt undergo difficult, healing transformations as well.
The winter continued and the unpredictable forces of nature and society ebbed and flowed. The family home, standing alone in a storm with a nameless wind, was even blown into the sea yet by spring’s open water, Quoyle himself had survived physically and drummed out some of his demons along the way and begins to see the possibility of love without pain or misery.
This was my Book-It list for 2013. Of the twelve books I put down I read the first ten, missed eleven (The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson) and substituted The Shipping News for The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Of course during the year I also read The Signature of All Things, Prisoner of Heaven, The Orphan Master’s Son, A Dance with Dragons, King Arthur (Goodrich), Idylls of the King, The History of the Kings of Britain and portions of Parzival. So, all in all, it was not too shabby a year. What did you read?