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By Gary Collins
$19.95 234 pages
“’Pass down the bloody prong, and not tines first, either,’ [Jake’s father] blared after the boy as he went scrambling up the stagehead.
Jake soon appeared at the lip of the stagehead, and with the sharp, two-tined prong in hand, he looked down at his father and wondered what would happen if he threw it down tines first.”
This animosity between son and father was seemingly embedded when Jake was born a few minutes into the new year and new century of 1900. His father doesn’t call him by name, but by various sobriquets, none affectionate. Jake isn’t like his father, but has a stammer, and red hair. The former may be because he can’t speak a sentence in his father’s presence without inviting categorical abuse, but the latter he was born with — evidence, possibly, of a romantic misalliance on his mother’s part.
His young boy’s life is full of toil, and it’s lonely. Then early one morning, he sets off fishing with his father, in his punt. “He never wound the sail tight as the other fishermen did, and he never kept her tidy, like the others in the place did. It was well-known that Jake’s father’s punt could be identified in the dark — by the smell of her.” But, come suppertime, they have not returned. A search is organized and Jake is found cowering in the boat, stuttering of his father’s accidental pitch into the cold Atlantic.
Jake’s father was such an overbearing presence that his loss is something of a boon to his kin, and a lift to the entire community. Jake begins fishing on his own, mentored by some of the other men. Unlike his dad he keeps his twine loft and stage clean and sociable, and the fishermen are happy to visit share their expertise.
And to tease him at the scent of romance.
“The Maid was a very pretty girl. She was a bit taller than Jake and had full, soft brown hair that just about covered her round face and small, perky nose. Dominating her face was a pair of friendly green eyes. Not even the drab grey dress which covered her, nor the equally drab apron she wore over it, could entirely disguise the maturing woman and her blossoming good looks.”
She had noticed Jake, and not just because he barged into her as she carried full water-buckets from the well. And she had done something startling — asks his opinion, curious if he liked something (in this case looking at the ocean). She herself, a reader and a dreamer, loves the waves, fancies them alive and full of stories.
No one had ever talked like that to Jake, or spent much time conversing with him at all. It was an unexpected bit of attention for the neglected, tormented boy, and he treasures it — and her. The teenagers are soon intensely attached and planning a future.
Their relationship is unlooked-for, and fortuitous. It promises luck, which Jake will need. Joining up with some other fishermen for shares in a bigger boat and catch is a good plan, but it needs money. The annual seal hunt is a rare way for a man to earn hard cash, and one of Jake’s fellow-fisherman promises him a word towards a berth, perhaps on The Stephano. It’s 1916, and Jake is too young to sign on, but he can write his own name and he can pass for older.
And the second way for a lad from the outports to earn actual money is to enlist in the Newfoundland Regiment, which pays $1 a day.
At this point, two years in the war, the Regiment has yet to see any action. But soon, thanks to fate, literally a train wreck taking out the Royal Scots, it will be sent to Gallipoli.
Lots of action here, crisis and drama. And there are still the mysteries of Jake’s father’s death, Jake’s very existence, his mother’s bitterness, and the secret The Maid dare not write about to him, all to be resolved.
Still, the writing can be a little plodding. For example, “The Maid” is always “The Maid,” and “The Old Man” (Captain Abram Kean) is always “The Old Man” — it’s repetitive, and the narrative can run by-the-numbers. On the other hand, author Gary Collins knows his way around a punt, or a WWI trench, for that matter.
Collins has published several books, but I think this is his second novel. Like “The Last Beothuk,” this story is shot through with historical research, steeped especially in the events of 1916, with the dual tragedies of the Newfoundland and Beaumont Hamel.
Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.