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This latest narrative from Andy Jones builds on his abiding connection to and fascination with such Newfoundland folklore as the Jack Tales and Peg Bearskin. There’s a richness to them suggesting their linkage with motifs and themes from all over the world; Jones’ research ranges from stories in Newfoundland and Labrador and Ojibwa culture to Salvation Army hymns.
“Once or twice upon a time or times there was … an old couple, a fisherman and a fisherwoman, who to their great sorrow, have no children.” But then, during an evening walk, they happen upon a little girl, whose “hair is long and wild, and she wears clothes woven from birch bark, feathers, leaves, and grass.” She can’t speak, has (oddly) only nine toes on her (bare) feet, and “is shy and runs away, but the woman soon coaxes her from her hiding place by singing a sweet lullaby.” They attempt to find the child’s family, to no avail. “That’s it, then; the girl stays with them.” And they name her Helen.
Helen turns out to be a loyal and resourceful daughter, “an ace salmon-fisher,” and helps with catching and salting the cod. But then the couple decide it’s time to move to the city, a place where Helen says she can’t thrive. They go back and forth about it.
“Finally, Helen says goodbye and gives her mother the biggest kind of a bear hug and then she shakes hands with her old man – ‘cause that’s the way it was in them days. She leaves and they leave. She goes on and they go on.”
Then she meets (of course!) giants. Three, to be specific. And yes they are brothers: “Bulleybummus, Arson-Puffin, and Dunch,” speaking in a kind of iambic-something-configured rhyme: “Shur, when I sees thee, Bulley, my heart skips / I loves thee more than ripped up parsnips”*. (Occasional footnotes add to the verbal play; this one explains “He has never actually tasted a sweet, delicious parsnip; he has only seen them torn up, gone dunchy, and lying sadly in a farmer’s field.”)
Primarily due to their violent natures, “everyone wants to rid the kingdom of these gruesome creatures.” Quick-thinking Helen quickly devises a plan, taking out her slingshot and bunging stones at the middle giant. Her scheme succeeds – to an extent. But then she comes into direct challenge with Bulleybummus, and he is renowned “for eating people in one gulp. His motto is One chomp, no chew.”
Is there a chance of escape? A quickly-struck bargain might lead Helen to the king, and more importantly the princess, Antoinette. But that means dealing with a cat who “has a magic power; / Once she sees thee, friend, you’ll surely cower …” Jeopardies and triumphs ensue, and, as in the best fairy tales, our heroines and heroes prevail by their wit and generosity.
Jones has a spot-on cadence to the words throughout. “Helen and her mother and father walk and they walk and they keep on walking for hours and hours along the narrow wooded path to the city, until at lunch-time, they sit down by the side of a babbling brook, light a fire, boil the tea-kettle, and eat their bread, butter, and molasses.” And Katie Brosnan’s expressive imagery keeps pace, ranging from full page portrayals in a natural bouncy palette to smaller monochromatic cameos and framings.
Some of the details (“They have just finished eating a flock of swans, three baby bears, and a barrel of gerbils”) are a bit gruesome, if never over-stressed, but then my bar for this is low. (How low? This low:
Friend: Let’s go see a movie.
Me: Is this movie about sunsets and kittens?
Friend: What? No. It’s about mobsters.
Me: Maybe one of the mobsters has a sweet little kitten and they like to watch the sunset together?
Friend: … What the hell are you talking about?
Me: It’s ok, best you go without me.)
Just a Stage: A Newfoundland Story
By Corey Majeau
$15.70 54 pages
The Little Red Shed
Written by Adam and Jennifer Young, illustrated by Adam Young
$14.95 34 pages
And here’s a duet of picture books about an iconic piece of vernacular architecture.
Corey Majeau’s is “Dedicated to all those who left home in search of adventure”: his stage hits the road in search of greener pastures.
Adam and Jennifer Young’s opens with “One sunny day, a little red shed, who once was white, had now turned red,” which makes her something of an outcast.
Both stories are bright jaunty travelogues of emotional and geographical navigation.
Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.