Chronicles from a Newfoundland Outport on the Eve of Confederation
by M. T. Dohaney
$19.95 176 pages
M.T. Dohaney has written popular novels, including “The Corrigan Women” (1988), and memoir, including “When Things Get Back to Normal” (2000), about picking up the pieces after the sudden death of her husband. Most of her creative work is based in Newfoundland; although she has spent much of her adult life in Fredericton, N.B., she was born and grew up in Point Verde.
In her introduction Dohaney writes that each story “contains a kernel of truth, some more than a kernel.” The “Chronicles” in the subtitle is a good term. While some of these 19 pieces are fully structured short stories, others are brief, even two-page flashes of a telling event. The “Eve of Confederation” distinction is also crucial; these short fictions are set in a pre-Confederate, often pre-electricity, pre-cash environment, where religious distinctions, social mores, communal superstitions, and above all general poverty determine not just daily choices but ultimate fate.
Martha, in “The Farewell,” lovingly prepares a last breakfast of fried eggs and toast for her youngest child, Kevin, who is leaving for work in the States. She would not use so sentimental a word as “lovingly,” though she believes it’s the last thing she may ever do for him. “She will never see him again once he leaves. She is certain of this ... once (her children) left they never returned. Not that anyone could blame them for never returning. Martha is quick to point this out, even to herself. How could they afford to return? ... even though they were working in Boston, fishermen’s wages there were still only fishermen’s wages. And housemaids were still only housemaids.”
The family in “LIttle Boy Pink” is in such dire straits that when a baby dies soon after his birth — partly because the doctor refused a payment in turnip — the only clothes fit to dress his corpse in is a silk dress belonging to a doll. The doll in turn belongs to Loretta, a gift from a relative living in Boston, and at 4 she identifies so strongly with it she names it after herself: Loretta Anastasia. The doll is too delicate and pretty to be played with, but Loretta is permitted to hold it for a few moments before bedtime, “exotic moments for a person who had experienced precious few of them.” Loretta’s response on finding her doll covered in a brown paper bag is the pure rage of a wronged child.
The opening story, “The Summer of Lannie Ramunski,” brings the titular exciting American teenager to Capelin Scull where she stays with her grandmother, Mrs. Furlong, neighbour to narrator Mary Magdalene Theresa. Lannie’s mother, who married an American soldier who then deserted her, but nonetheless stayed on in the States, is now having a serious operation. Everything is different about Lannie, starting with her name, which the nuns consider “a trumped-up Hollywood” nomenclature, and worse, not associated with any saint, a condition unknown to the schoolchildren. “Every morning when Sr. Ignatius called roll, it sounded as if she were reading straight from the Litany of Saints and they were all Irish at that. There was Mary, Agnes, and Mary Agnes. There was Lucy, Cecilia, Ann, Elizabeth, Sarah, Rose, Catherine, Paul, James, Ambrose, Steven, Patrick, John. In case of duplication, other distinctions had to be made. Elizabeth from the Gulch, Elizabeth from the Harbour. Patrick from Up Along. Patrick from the Cove.”
Mary is warned not to spend too much time with Lannie, but of course is an instant disciple. Lannie introduces Mary to sophistication: full skirts with crinolines, lipstick in shiny gold cases, cardigans worn with the buttons in the back. But her parting lesson is more profound than simple fashion.
There’s an incredible pull of recall in these stories, but they’re not nostalgic. Insistence on pre-Vatican II death rituals are onerous and divisive, apparently teetotaller figures sneak toxic amounts of home brew, and a complete lack of educational and employment prospects permanently fractures families. So many Newfoundlanders left for fabled Boston and New York, ties still felt today, but, as noted above, they didn’t find streets of gold but the same hard work a slightly more prosperous Newfoundland might have been able to offer them. And many of the religious proscriptions, now thankfully lapsed, divided even small communities and denied small pleasures. In “The Devil is a Gentleman” Sarah pleads with her magistrate father for permission to attend a dance. He holds their Protestant religion prohibits attending such Catholic frivolity and near-blasphemy. But Sarah just wants to fit in at school. “Please, Father ... I promise to leave before midnight. And I promise not to dance. I just want to be seen there so I won’t get mocked when I go to school on Monday.” Another small domestic scenario that Doherty opens into a broader cultural and historical perspective.
Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.