Even in the present day, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, meeting someone who’s just arrived in the province, often ask (at least to themselves), “Why? What brought you here? (And will you stay after you’ve experienced a winter/no spring?)”
And this is in a time when people are fairly nomadic, often choose to move for work or love, and are able to retrace steps or propel themselves onward without taking their lives in their hands.
For the first European settlers, though, the stakes were quite high.
In the early 17th century, Bristol merchants were abuzz with talk of the New Found Land. It wasn’t the first such site – colonists were already established at what would become Virginia, though not thriving (many had died and those who were left were having great difficulty fending for themselves).
But the idea that the New World was a potential source of great riches was a stubborn one.
And as these rewards would flow from persistence, heart, and hard work, they were a way for a man with drive and resolve to gain himself land, affluence, and influence – powers restricted in England by blood and family lines. Still, such an endeavour was not something lightly undertaken.
Any sea voyage was perilous. Sailing to the very ends of the earth, possibly never to be heard from again, was almost unthinkable. To most. But not to all.
In Bristol, 1609, a marriage is being arranged. Mistress Kathryn Gale is the pretty daughter of a stonemason, a respected artisan. Master Nicholas Guy is a respected craftsman, too, a shoemaker.
It’s an appropriate match, affecting only them and such members of their household as Nancy Ellis, Kathryn’s maid and confident (and the book’s main character), and Ned Perry, an apprentice with an adolescent’s pining for the master’s daughter. All as usual – except Master Guy’s cousin is John Guy, who has founded a colony in Cupids Cove, Trinity Bay, New Found Land.
(The original colony went by different names; in her informative “Afterword” author Trudy J. Morgan-Cole explains why she selected this one, as well as what guided her other factual and fictional choices.)
Nicholas, his ambitions outstripping shoemaking, decides to join his cousin. Their thinking is to exploit the expected abundant resources, befriend and trade with “the savages,” and build up their self-sufficiency until they can fashion or grow everything they need, with no replenishments required from England. Wealth will doubtless ensue.
At first, Kathryn is meant to stay in Bristol, overseeing Nicholas’s domestic and business interests as best she can.
Additionally, like many young brides, she is soon pregnant, not an ideal state for travel.
But events turn against her and soon she feels isolated and depressed. When Nicholas decides he wants to really commit to prospering in the New World, Kathryn decides her place is with him. This puts the Gale house in an uproar.
How dare Nicholas Guy drag their daughter off to some (literally) God-forsaken place? They may well never lay eyes on her again. But it’s especially momentous for Nancy. Orphaned very young, she was brought into the Gale household as a companion for Kathryn – until the latter’s marriage they slept every night together. If Kathryn leaves, she will have to find a new position for herself, somewhere in Bristol. But if she goes … could she go … how could she go?
At Cupids Cove, the first, all-male, contingent is building from the ground up: “Once they were on land they had fair weather, and their work proceeded quickly in the long days of late summer and autumn. They had toiled hard to get the dwelling-house and storehouse closed in and to finish the palisade wall. The frosty nights were not too cold to bear now that they no longer had to sleep in pits dug into the ground and covered with canvas, as they had done during the first weeks.”
And they soon realize they are building for women. They need more colonists, but women are vital.
No New World can be born without them. The new arrivals do bring skill and energy, but also rivalry and jealousy. And they meet not just agricultural challenges (no grain will grow), but life and death dramas of illness or childbirth apart from medical help. And pirates!
“A Roll of the Bones” is a satisfying read and as a launch to the trilogy it has character, texture, and traction. Morgan-Cole is skilled not just with historical fiction but that of several different periods (“By The Rivers of Brooklyn” (1920s); “Most Anything You Please” (WWII); how great she keeps upping her game.
Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.