Back of the book no more — or not

Michael Johansen
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Tourism guides published about this region of Canada (including my own guide, I add with humility) teach travellers and others that if you’re interested in Labrador, you have to flip all the way to the back of the book to learn about it — or at least to the end of the chapter that deals with this province, which is usually the last one or close to it.

The official “Newfoundland Labrador Traveller’s Guide” is a prime example: Labrador may have three-quarters of the province’s terrain, but it only gets 34 pages out of 373.

Picture books and natural histories tend to follow the same pattern, but in contrast they’ve been improving over time. In Hugh MacLennan’s “The Colour of Canada,” published in the Centennial year, the island of Newfoundland gets four glorious photographs and a column of text at the beginning of the chapter entitled “The Maritimes,” but Labrador is only mentioned later on when it gets the blame for sending the frigid nor’easters that covered a pretty Prince Edward Island farmyard with snow.

Renowned photographer Sherman Hines did a little better in his 1979 book “Atlantic Canada” by presenting pictures from Newfoundland evenly throughout the volume. However, compared to the more than 130 images from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and P.E.I., this province only got a baker’s dozen. Of those, just two were from Labrador (both unnamed portraits: one a man from Postville and the other a boy from Hopedale) and they appeared towards the end.

In 1991, the American National Geographic Society broke the trend with a loud blast in “Canada’s Incredible Coasts.” Labrador gets the very first sentence of the very first chapter: “For five centuries and more, voyagers to rock-ribbed Labrador have damned and praised its coast — sometimes simultaneously.” The chapter, entitled “Newfoundland’s Wild Shores,” continues with descriptions of the province’s mainland territory for the next eight pages before the contributing author leaps the Strait of Belle Isle to write about the Northern Peninsula. As well, as if that isn’t pleasing enough, a friend to many on both sides of the strait makes an appearance quite early on:

“Both regions bind their people tightly to home — people like Alex Saunders, whom (author Tom Melham) met aboard his fishing boat at the dock in Nain, Labrador. ‘Where do you belong to?’ Alex asked with a grin, using the Newfoundland form for ‘Where are you from?’”

What emerges strongly from the National Geographic Society text (aside from the misleading impression that Atlantic Canada’s human history began in the age of European exploration) is that the region’s natural history is shaped in large part by the north, from where the Labrador Current flows south to meet the warm tropical waters.

More recently — published just last year, in fact — Nova Scotia author Harry Thurston’s “The Atlantic Coast” is all about natural history. It presents edifying discussions not just on the great engine of the Atlantic currents, but also on how shifting continents and massive sheets of ice wrought the coasts we see today.

“The Atlantic Coast” arrived in the mail a little while ago from Greystone Books for me to review, and I immediately saw a problem: I liked it too much. The book gives me little to write about except the positive. Thurston’s writing is well-researched, clear and engaging, and the pictures, taken by photographer Wayne Barrett, are nothing less than astounding and beautiful. Not only that, he manages to straighten out earlier publications that mention Labrador by pointing out that, “The Eurocentric view of a barren land is not born out by the long history of Aboriginal occupancy.”

Fortunately for me, in this infrequent role I take as a book reviewer, Thurston gives me some cause for complaint.

He did not follow the example of the National Geographic Society, but instead returned to the common template used by travel guides. While he provides a wealth of information and a tapestry of images about Labrador, he relegates the region to the last pages of the second-last chapter, where it appears almost as an afterthought.

But while this might count against it, it hardly condemns what is certainly a worthy read.

Michael Johansen is a writer

living in Labrador.

Organizations: National Geographic Society

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Atlantic Canada, Nova Scotia Prince Edward Island New Brunswick Postville Hopedale

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