Great railway photos, with text to match

Robin McGrath
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I always enjoy looking at books of photographs of Newfoundland, but in the case of “Rails Across the Rocks,” a collection of then-and-now pictures of the rail line across the island, I didn’t expect to have much interest in the text. I was dead wrong. The photos are fascinating, but so are the commentaries that go along with them.

Rails Across the Rock:
A Then & Now Celebration of the Newfoundland Railway
By Kenneth G. Pieroway
Creative Books
$22.95; 183 pages

Kenneth G. Pieroway is a social  worker from Colinet who got the trainspotting bug early in life. “Rails Across the Rock” pairs up colour photos from the last 60 years or so with contemporary photos of the same areas by Pieroway that show the changes that have taken place in the landscape with the demise of the railway.

Some years ago, Manny Buchheit did a similar project using the historic photos taken by Robert Holloway. Buchheit’s and Holloway’s black-and-white photos are artistic, while Pieroway and the other railway photographers are illustrative, but the skill needed to find exactly the spot from which to take the contemporary photos is the same.

The texts that accompany the photographs tell you things about the railway you never thought of considering, such as the meaning of the red or olive green “livery” or the identity of the engineers driving the trains.

The texts also usually contain some small nugget of information about the specific location: Stephenville Crossing is wetlands habitat for the endangered piping plover, Robinsons was settled by Scottish farmers in the 1890s, Long Pond was once called Talkville for its deposits of pyrophyllite.

This book will really appeal to anyone with even a passing interest in the Newfoundland Railway or Newfoundland geography and landscape. The format is quite large for a softcover, but my copy stayed firmly glued together despite the abuse I subjected it to while reading. This is a great book for the cabin or camp.

How Newfoundlanders

Got the Baby Bonus:

Stories from Our Imperfect Past

By Edward Roberts

Flanker Press

$19.95; 254 pages

Ed Roberts’ collection of newspaper columns, “How Newfoundlanders Got the Baby Bonus,” looks at what he calls the “myths, misunderstandings and outright misrepresentations” inherent in the history of this province. Each of the 50 chapters takes on a person, event or story that he feels has been misrepresented in the history books.

Typical of these topics is the question of why the Newfoundland Regiment wore blue puttees, who Sir Hugh Tudor was, how we got our various flags, and the circumstances surrounding the court case involving Peter Cashin and the judges.

When Roberts is addressing readers of his own age or older, he may have a point, but in the case of those of us born after 1949, I think he’s preaching to the choir.  I’m no historian, but I don’t think I believed any of the “myths” he takes on, nor did I learn much new from his summations of the events.

The archivists, historians and librarians Roberts acknowledges as having helped him research these pieces are all very eminent, so as little potted history lessons they are reliable, but I don’t think they have much to offer the many history buffs I know are out there.  Roberts did no new research, found no new information, brought no surprises to the subjects.

“How Newfoundlanders Got the Baby Bonus” could be seen as a reasonable place for someone new to Newfoundland history to start as it covers some of the most popular subjects of public attention. However I found the stories dull and simplistic. Ed Roberts is turning into the rich man’s Jack Fitzgerald.

The Woman I Am

By Sabrina Whyatt

Flanker Press

$29.95; 220 pages

Sabrina Whyatt is a television personality and a country music star, or so her book cover says.

I’d never heard of her before I received a copy of her autobiography, “The Woman I Am,” in the mail. I expect her most notable claim to fame is that, like Megan Coles, she’s from the Northern Peninsula and is involved in the fishery as well as the arts. Otherwise, she seems to be a perfectly ordinary single woman approaching middle-age.

If you are hungry for accounts of teen-adventures, minor Ski-Doo accidents, inconvenient flat tires and community hall concerts, this is the book for you.

However, if you’re looking for insight into the life of a woman in a man’s world, or just insight into the life of a minor celebrity, you’re out of luck.

Even Whyatt’s confession of bouts of insecurity and bulimia is pretty ordinary and predictable.

When she witnesses a targeted murder in a Montreal nightclub, all she really says is, “I was numb.”

Flanker has done a good job of producing this book. It’s hard-bound with a chic, professional-looking cover. The layout is clean and attractive, and I spotted only two typos, but this can’t make up for the trite nature of the content.

The dozens of family photos are of little interest to any but Whyatt’s relatives, and I doubt even those relatives really appreciate seven pictures of her pet pig.

Whyatt is evidently a very pleasant and hard-working woman, but she doesn’t elevate her memoirs beyond the banal.

She is able to give factual accounts of things she’s done and experienced, but these events produce no insights, no lessons, nothing for the reader to chew on.

At times she is “humbled,” or “honoured” or even “numb,” but that’s about all we really learn about her from this book.

Robin McGrath is a writer living in Goose Bay, Labrador. Her most recent book is “The Birchy Maid.” Her column returns March 22.

Organizations: Newfoundland Railway, Imperfect PastBy Edward RobertsFlanker Press, Jack Fitzgerald.The Woman I AmBy Sabrina WhyattFlanker Press Ski-Doo

Geographic location: Colinet, Newfoundland, Long Pond Northern Peninsula Montreal Goose Bay

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  • david
    February 22, 2014 - 09:25

    Exactly one decade after Newfoundland traded in its railway for a road, rail in North America, led by CN Rail, began an industrial resurgence that is nothing short of astounding. Meanwhile, that road of ours is quickly deteriorating back into a cow path. Another keystone government initiative in setting our economic future.