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Joan Sullivan: Memoir takes you along for the ride

Book cover
Book cover - Submitted

A Newfoundlander in Canada:
Always Going Somewhere, Always Coming Home
by Alan Doyle
Doubleday Canada
244 pages  $32.95

Alan Doyle’s second book is another memoir; where his first, “Where I Belong,” took us through childhood to the genesis of Great Big Sea, this tracks the first years of the slog and excitement of a band on the road, growing in fame and fandom until they look out from a stadium stage and realize they have made it. The chapters are organized on a geographic trajectory, moving outward as the band’s performance circuit grows, with tacks back to Petty Harbour for personal stories.

Anyone who’s seen Doyle play, act, or read an interview with him, and I guess that’s about all of us, knows he is a charming, natural raconteur. He can also write, with wit and zest. His central theme is, as the title suggests, the adventure of being a Newfoundlander in Canada, and he finds much that unites those categories, as well as much that illustrates the differences between them. For example, directions for driving, in Charlottetown and St. John’s, respectively:

 “Visitor: Excuse me, I need to drive from downtown to the university. What’s the best route?

 “Charlottetown answer: Turn right on Queen Street and right on Belvedere Avenue.

 “St. John’s answer: No trouble at all. Nothing to it ... At the top of Prescott, you’ll find yourself at what seems to be a dead end, but it’s not. Turn right and enter Rawlins Cross. Some people calls that the most confusing intersection on the planet, but it’s not so bad once you get through it ...  You should be on Monkstown Road then, which will carry you down to Empire Avenue. Now, you’re not supposed to turn left on Empire, but everyone does it, because we always used to go that way until they decided it was too dangerous or something. So turn left unless you see the constabulary ... ” And that’s not the half (or even the third) of it.

There is a serious side to his stories, too. Invited to play on Parliament Hill in 1997 for the Canada Day ceremonies before, amongst others, Queen Elizabeth II, GBS learns that the producer intends to costume them in yellow sou’westers and pull them on stage in a dory. Ructions ensue and the story went national. Against considerable pressure the band stood firm: Newfoundland culture was not a joke. Their push-back was successful but the gig, which should have felt like a triumph, left an awful taste in their mouths.

Doyle’s renditions of these events is absorbing — and reaffirms how seriously the members of GBS took their origins and their music, if not themselves. Much of the other material is much lighter, sheer fun: the first step into Winnipeg winter; sips of P.E.I. moonshine on an early Sunday morning; being seated, on a flight back to St. John’s, next to a passenger so awful the airline later formally apologized for his “emotional trauma.”

But there are layers to being a Newfoundlander in Canada, and Doyle considers them all:

“I watch the plane load up and feel like I know every face. Not the individual people, but the faces ... They are faces from the wharf in Petty Harbour. They are the faces that hauled the woods down off the hill in Maddox Cove and loaded the fish truck with a forklift. These are the eyes that used to look out on the bay while mending nets laid over the guardrail to dry in the earliest days of spring, wondering what trap berth they might draw for the summer. These are the lines on the foreheads of men who worried about the wind on the high tide when the last of the icebergs still hung around the fishing grounds. These are the fishermen and sons of fishermen, fish plant workers and sons of fish plant workers, who used to work and most certainly would be working all over the coast of Newfoundland if the inshore cod fishery was not still until the 1992 cod moratorium. The passengers were all drawn west to work primarily as skilled labourers in the oil industry or the services that support an oil economy. We are the gypsies of the country. Travelling in packs to where the work is and bringing a song and a dance with us and taking a pocketful of money home.”

In the arc of this journey, Doyle later writes, “Newfoundland had become not just welcome, accepted, and understood, but popular, even fashionable. From a punchline to beloved in less than a decade. And we were along for that ride.”

* When “Robin Hood” (2010), in which Doyle plays a confident of the titular hero, was released, I went to see a matinee a few weeks after it opened. The cinema was about a third full. After the film ended, by unspoken consensus, we all sat through the credits, and clapped when Doyle’s name appeared. It wasn’t anything planned, it just happened. It was just how we felt.

Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.

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