To say the people of North West River were anxious to read Anne Budgell’s book, “Dear Everybody,” is an understatement. If any more had shown up for its launch at the Labrador Interpretation Centre, there might have been trouble with the provincial fire marshal.
Fortunately, there was enough room and enough copies for everybody — not that everyone needed to buy the book. Many had already bought one and read it. Someone who sat beside me confessed she had already read “Dear Everybody” twice and was looking forward to reading it again.
For many years, I only knew Anne as a voice on the radio, but it was obvious she practised utmost professionalism in covering currents affairs and I trusted her. If she found something interesting, it was interesting for sure. If she declared something, it was true. I eventually had the opportunity to work with her (to be her technician as she guest-hosted CBC’s “Labrador Morning” for several weeks over two summers) and all my good impressions were confirmed. In short, I consider Anne Budgell to be one of the finest journalists Newfoundland and Labrador has ever had a hand in producing, which puts her among the best in the whole country.
That said, with the example she’s set for herself, Anne could never
get away with something slapped together out of a handful of newspaper clippings and an interview or two. Her first book had enormous expectations lying in wait for it and “Dear Everybody” exceeds them all. It’s a fascinating and absorbing read. Anne has taken the personal history of a single woman and used it to open a window to the past, revealing the twilight years of a rich culture born out of unimaginable hardship.
We, as readers, cannot step into that world, but Anne shows it clearly: almost blinding our eyes with the glare of sunlight off snow, filling our noses with the smells of food cooking on a smoky woodstove, weakening our muscles after days of walking, paddling and portaging, deafening our ears with the earth-shaking roar of mighty waterfalls.
“Dear Everybody” is history, but it’s not ancient history, so Anne had help writing it, including from the subject of the book herself (Barbara Groves, née Mundy) through her letters and diaries, and from the subject’s daughter, Marjorie Groves — who not only appears in the book as a very young child, but attended the Labrador launch as well.
(On a personal tangent, another North West River resident appears, and whether I talk with him, sit at his table for Christmas dinner or meet him in Anne’s book as a 15-year-old boy who already has a solid reputation as a woodsman and provider, it’s always a pleasure to see Edward Blake.)
Anne’s book (which is all you need to call it in North West River) is about a woman from the wealthy side of New York City who married
a Labradorian and lived on his trapline for two whole winters. Barbara Mundy found her way north following philanthropic pursuits to escape an increasingly tedious socialite lifestyle at home. She signed up to volunteer with the Grenfell Mission and first served in St. Anthony, but was later assigned to the hospital in North West River. Barbara Mundy first fell in love with the land and then with a man of the land, Russell Groves.
The New Yorker’s journey from a Park Avenue suite to a tiny tilt beside a Labrador river reveals what central Labrador was like as it stood on the brink of massive change — much of the landscape described is gone or going.
What Anne reveals as she weaves the story together was how inextricably the land and those people were linked — especially through the sacrifices made as men spent months alone in the woods to feed their families. The story of Barbara and Russell is a remarkable one, and how it ends — well, I’ll leave that for Anne to tell.
To say “Dear Everybody” could only happen in Labrador is my second understatement. To say Anne Budgell is the best writer to do the story justice would be the third.
To say everybody should read “Dear Everybody” is definitely my fourth.
Michael Johansen is a writer
living in Labrador.