A great buy, with lots of sunshine

Robin McGrath
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Spirit of Place: St. John’s, the Avalon and the English Shore By John McQuarry Magic Light Publishing $35.00; 241 pages

My first impression when I opened John McQuarry’s “Spirit of Place” was that it was a typically bad self-publishing job: chaotic and crowded, with a poor layout and too many typos. However, once I managed to get past the first 25 pages or so, I began to revise my take on the book.

“Spirit of Place” is based on such an obvious idea that it leaves you wondering why someone hadn’t thought of it before. McQuarry has, essentially, taken his texts from various websites and matched them up to his own lovely photographs. It’s economic, easy and so much quicker than trying to get dozens of different authors to write about their chosen subjects.

Much of the material in “Spirit of Place” comes from the Memorial University Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage website, the authors of which are all super-reliable academics, including Sean Cadigan, Jim Hiller, the late Ralph Pastore, Peter Pope, Jim Tuck and others, even including a few women.

The book is, in effect, a tangible website, aggregating information. The result is a rather colourless text with the tone of an encyclopedia entry, but since the words are laid alongside and over dozens of bright photographs, many captioned with McQuarry’s own enthusiastic observations, there is enough personality to balance things out.

This is a book for tourists, with easy-to-follow maps as endpapers, clearly captioned sections dealing with all the major towns on what McQuarry calls the English Shore, and easy-to-absorb (or ignore) gobbets of history on such subjects as the seal fishery, architecture, grocery stores, religion, archeology and more.

The pictures are of primary importance in this work, as they are the first and maybe the only thing most buyers will be concerned with. As tourists generally come to the province only in the summer months, the vast majority of the photos look as if they were shot in July and August. There’s very little fog or rain, and the colour is as bright and cheerful as an episode of “Republic of Doyle.”

Part of what makes this book work is that McQuarry has put his ego on the back burner and laid his photography out like a magazine rather than a book. It’s accessible rather than arty. His captions are next to or on top of the photos, so you don’t have to wonder if those pounding waves are Cape Spear or Cape Race.

Most photographers are unwilling to let anything intrude on the pristine cleanliness of their images and prefer to send you scrambling to the back of the book to look for information, which is fine if you only have to do it a few times, but irritating if it involves hundreds of photos.

While most of the photographs are McQuarry’s own, he has also mined the websites for suitable historic images to illustrate a “Then and Now” theme throughout the book. Like Manny Buchheit, he has taken photos by Holloway and others and gone back and rephotographed many of these iconic scenes.The results are fascinating.

Petty Harbour a hundred years ago is matched up with Petty Harbour today, safely behind its modern breakwaters. The crew of a schooner a century ago, faces obscured by beards and pipes, gaze over the page at the crew of a long liner, one of them a smiling woman in rubber work clothes.

The book has plenty of obvious faults. Bell Island motor boats are labeled “punts,” page numbers referring you ahead are not all accurate, and because there is no bibliography or Works Cited, you get incomplete or obscure references like “According to Bannister …”

In the section on churches, the “Then” of the subtitle is represented by the Kirk, the Basilica and Gower Street United, but there is no Salvation Army barracks, no Sikh temple, no synagogue or mosque to represent the “Now.”  

Hans Rollmann makes almost the only reference to modern aboriginal life in the book, and there are not “thousands” of outports in Newfoundland. At last count, I think there were about 840 communities, including places like St. John’s, Corner Brook, Gander and Buchans which could not be called outports by any stretch of the imagination.

There is also far too much of Ron Young and Roy Dwyer, who have their own books if they want to be heard.

On the whole, however, “Spirit of Place” is a worthy enterprise. Locals will wish they lived in this sunny, clean, cheerful island, and maybe tourists who encountered chilly, windy, wet squalls will manage to forget the bad weather and bask instead in the sunshine radiating from the pages of this memento of the Newfoundland they had hoped to visit.

Lastly, look again at the price of this book: $35.

That’s no typo, that’s the real price. The pages are sturdy, the binding is sewn and there’s colour on almost every single one of the hundreds of  9-by-11-1/2-inch pages. That’s how cheap it is to print books in Hong Kong.

Would I buy this book for a friend or relation? You bet I would. It has lots of information, hundreds of pictures, it will hold up nicely on a car trip with the family, and it’s mostly accurate.

For $35, you won’t find a better buy anywhere.


Robin McGrath is a writer living

in Goose Bay, Labrador. Her most recent book is “The Birchy Maid.”

Her column returns Sept. 7.

Organizations: Memorial University Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage, Gower Street United, Salvation Army

Geographic location: Petty Harbour, Doyle, Cape Race Newfoundland Bell Island Corner Brook Buchans Hong Kong Goose Bay

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