Memoir describes a woman’s brutal childhood in Labrador
Josie Penny, a soft-spoken Labrador Métis woman with sparkling blue eyes, tips her head slightly to the side as she considers what she’d most like to happen when her new book, “So Few on Earth: A Labrador Métis Woman Remembers,” is released.
“If people can relate to the story, if they can find solace in it, or be encouraged to write their own story, then I’ve done my job,” she says, giving a tiny nod and leaning back in her chair.
“For me, writing this book was a therapeutic experience. I really was a lost soul before I wrote it.”
Penny was travelling around the Northern Peninsula and Southern Labrador with her husband last week, promoting the book, and stopped in at The Northern Pen for a chat. It’s set to be released by Dundurn in October.
“So Few on Earth” is about Penny’s childhood along the Labrador coast in the 1940s and 1950s. Born at her family’s winter home outside Cartwright in 1943, she was sent to a hospital at age four and then to boarding school three years later, where she says she suffered horrific punishments, teasing and two rapes.
At age 11, she was sent to work.
“That was my first job,” she says.
“I worked for the Hudson’s Bay manager’s wife. School wasn’t a big priority — I had to leave to work.
“I was a cook at age 15 at the same mission I was at as a child. It was a hard time. Very emotional.”
Penny eventually married and had children.
In 1977, she and her husband moved from Goose Bay to Ontario with their three teenagers.
It was then she realized her kids knew virtually nothing about her past.
“They didn’t know anything about growing up in the cold isolation of the coast, how their parents and grandparents survived,” she explained.
The importance of getting her children to understand their roots was what led to her writing about her childhood. But with only seven years of formal schooling under her belt, she felt enormous unease when she signed up for classes to help with her writing.
“When I started off, I had no clue what I was doing, so I took a course at McMaster University in Hamilton,” she said.
“I said to the instructor that I didn’t belong there because I only had a Grade 7 education, but he said it didn’t matter and told me two very important things: one, to write what you know, and two, to let the chips fall where they may. That’s what kept me going all those years — those two bits of advice.”
It took Penny 10 years and plenty of heartache to complete the autobiography of her early years, but she says it was well worth it.
“I know now that I can do anything if I set my mind to it and if I want it in my heart and soul,” she said.
“To me accolades are irrelevant. This helped me and I’ll always be grateful that I wrote it.”
Penny acknowledges that books written from a childhood perspective can sometimes shine events in a different light than would be the case in adulthood, but she says she was careful to be open about the fact the tale is her experiences as drawn from her memory.
“In terms of all the factual references, I did my research, but this book is my personal perspective on everything that happened,” she said.
“If that means I have to develop thicker skin, then that’s what I’ll do. I think people will realize these are my memories, my story.”
The book is also set to be released in both Europe and the U.S.
“It boggles the mind and to be truthful is a little scary,” the author said.
“But the thing is to remember where I’m from, to remain as me, to stay real — to remember all the things my mother taught me.
“This is going to give me experiences to take me outside of my boundaries, but that’s OK — I’m open to new experiences.
“I just want to bring Labrador into focus. I just want to tell my story.”
The Northern Pen