Two fascinating profiles, and a ‘comic’ tragedy

Robin McGrath
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The Premiers Joey
and Frank: Greed, Power and Lust
By Bill Rowe
Flanker Press
$22.00; 327 pages

“The Premiers Joey and Frank” is the first of two books of “candid memoirs” by former politician and current broadcaster Bill Rowe, and it is a page turner. In fact, he owes me half a night’s sleep as the volume arrived in the mail at four in the afternoon and I was up until 2 a.m. reading it.

When I voiced anticipation at reviewing this book, someone said, “You aren’t going to learn anything you didn’t already know,” but that wasn’t the case, although much of what Rowe has to say about Joe Smallwood is consistent with my personal knowledge of the man.

Smallwood, in my experience, was foul-mouthed, ruthless and far from being the teetotaler he claimed to be. Towards the end of his rein, those who worked for or with him really wondered if he had gone stark raving mad. However, knowing this and having it confirmed in print by someone close to him are two different things.

If anything, Rowe tends to give Smallwood the benefit of the doubt. I think he greatly underestimates the hand Smallwood and Gerry Stevens had in the Ottenheimer scandal of 1969, and I think there were many other situations where Smallwood was more ruthless than even Rowe thought.

To give a minor example, Smallwood’s rudeness to his wife was legendary, and Rowe depicts it here, but it was well known behind closed doors that he frequently knocked Clara about and as a result was unwelcome in the houses of many of his colleagues because there was a boycott on the part of their wives — women like Rowe’s mother, who loathed the man.

I left Newfoundland for Alberta in 1968, so I missed all the machinations of Smallwood’s political death throes, though I heard a good deal about it both then and later, so it was fascinating to have the whole struggle laid out in such compelling and amusing prose.  

Frank Moores was utterly unknown to me, and while the picture of Moores that Rowe draws isn’t as vivid or rounded as that of Smallwood, it is certainly enlightening. I suspect Rowe’s defence of his own political missteps is somewhat softened, but that’s to be expected.

One of the literary techniques that I particularly admire in this book is the way Rowe establishes from the start that this is a subjective account, not the result of research and fact checking.  He never uses quotation marks when recalling what was said, and although in one or two places I had to reread a sentence to figure out if this was Rowe’s thoughts or words attributed to someone else, it works. There is nothing more misleading in a memoir than invented dialogue.

I’ve heard the book called sleazy and sloppy, but even the harshest critics can’t deny it is compelling.  “The Premiers Joey and Frank” is crack for political junkies and will be a welcome gift for even the marginally interested observer of the political scene.

Dear Everybody: A Woman’s Journey

from Park Avenue to a Labrador Trapline

By Anne Budgell

Boulder Publications

$19.95; 319 pages

Retired CBC reporter Anne Budgell has the heart of a novelist. “Dear Everybody” is a biography of Barbara Mundy Groves during her years in Labrador, but it has the structure and tension of a work of fiction. It’s a terrific read.

Groves was a New York socialite who came to work as a WOP with the Grenfell Mission in the Industrial Department at St. Anthony. She was a tall, gangly, rather goofy-looking woman, and when her engagement to a man at home ended badly, she seemed to have despaired of ever getting married. During the war, she returned as a volunteer with the Mission, landing in North West River just when the Goose Bay air base was at its most active.

Groves was a bit long in the tooth when she arrived in Labrador, but given that there were up to 10,000 men in Goose Bay and very few women, the obvious direction of this story should have been marriage to a lonely American serviceman. Instead, she fell hard for Labrador and widowed trapper Russell Groves. Barbara was so taken with the country and the man that she went trapping with him to the Height of Land.

Budgell’s gift here is her insider’s knowledge of the place and the people, and her flair for the dramatic. She introduces Groves in the early weeks of her marriage, bewildered and miserable, trying to figure out what is expected of her and not succeeding. The narrative then shifts back to her days in New York, works through the stages of her work and her love affair until we catch up with her on the river and learn how both spouses adjusted to matrimony.

Groves left several thousand pages of letters, diaries and notes, but Budgell’s background information and research is the glue that binds the story seamlessly together. At over 300 pages, this isn’t a short book, but I got so caught up in the life of this warm and charmingly real socialite that I wished it was longer. Spoiler alert: the rather unlikely union lasted for 50 years.

Almost Home: The Sinking

of the S.S. Caribou

By Jennifer Morgan

Breakwater Books

$12.95; 16 pages

At Christmas time, I am always on the lookout for books that adults can share with children, and “Almost Home: The Sinking of the S.S. Caribou” fits that bill. This is a book that an elder and a child can hide away in a corner to read and discuss.

An account of a shipwreck that resulted in the deaths of numerous innocent civilians, including children, may not strike everyone as appropriate Yuletide fare, but the events are in the distant past and the underlying message is one of family, bravery and acceptance.

Written and illustrated in comic-book or illustrated novel fashion, this account of the wartime loss of a passenger boat off our coast is history in a form palatable for even a fairly young child. I particularly liked the map at the beginning showing where the various military bases were in town. Last time I was in St. John’s, I asked a bus driver to drop me at Shamrock Field and he didn’t know what I was talking about.

Robin McGrath is a writer living in Goose Bay, Labrador. Her most recent book is “The Birchy Maid.”  Her column returns Jan. 4, 2014.

Organizations: CBC, Industrial Department

Geographic location: Labrador, Goose Bay, Alberta New York Journeyfrom Park Avenue St. Anthony North West River

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