Previous installments of This Week in Reading can be found here.
Greetings again from rural Canada! This will be the last rural Canadian reading post until…mid-September. So you can expect that next week’s installment will be exclusively books set in NYC about literary men experiencing agita with their literary dads. Maybe they’ll have terse dinners! HAHAHAHAHAHA, I am not even joking, because my next book is David Gilbert’s And Sons. But it’s supposed to be really good. If you want to write a really good novel about NYC literary men and their dads, I’ll totally read it.
But, for now, we are still in rural Canada, and I thought we’d do some ghostly stuff and some SUPER AMAZING microhistory and one total nostalgia-fest.
Did I mention my mom’s house is a little haunted? It is. I both believe and do not believe in ghosts, like many people, so I say this 60% ironically. Mostly, my deceased grandmother has been spotted a few times, and my great-great-grandfather Pat is really up in our business. By which I mean that he came home drunk from the Marysville Hotel in 1926 and got hit by a train, which is the ultimate fate of every dog our family has ever had, as the Trans-Canada railroad cuts across our lane (PICTURED, with Child of The Toast.)
Anyway, they dragged him up to the house to die, and now visitors occasionally ask if someone left a radio playing, because they could SWEAR someone was whistling “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” as they were falling asleep. Great-great-grandfather Pat is a bit of a card. But it’s all very benign and pleasant. My cousins and I like to rank the haunted-ness of the farmhouse, a la “the most haunted room is the one with two beds, the second most haunted room is to the left when you go upstairs, the third most haunted room is across from that one, and the least haunted room is the little one above the kitchen.” Now, my cousins insist that the aforementioned little room is the MOST haunted room, but since that one is my room, I disagree. Perhaps I am actually a ghost?
All of this is to say that I like to read books about ghosts when I’m here. This time, I wound up flipping through You Are Never Alone: Our Life on the Donnelly Homestead, which, as you will know if you have read my blogging for any amount of time, is about my favourite thing, the Black Donnellys. This is not even remotely the best book about the Black Donnellys, who are the only interesting thing to happen in Canadian history (prove me wrong with more interesting history, Canada), but the guy living on the homestead has a great sense of humour. For example, people are always showing up at his house, right, and asking him if it’s true a horse won’t go past the homestead after dark, and he’s all “this is 2013, how many people are riding down the road on horseback after nightfall period?” It’s fun. But you should buy literally every book about the Black Donnellys and then develop weird crushes on long-dead Irish-Canadian murderers and thieves. I mean, check out Tom, right? Rowr! Don’t get too excited, he was brutally killed by a local vigilante mob who got tired of putting up with his shit.
I am not here to talk chiefly about the Black Donnellys today (close tab), but rather to praise Cassie Brown’s shamefully under-read work of non-fiction, Death on the Ice: The Great Newfoundland Sealing Disaster of 1914. You can buy it used for a penny plus shipping, or you can get it for the Kindle, and I really, really think you should. I hate to play this card, I really do, but if said disaster had occurred in the United States, and someone had exhaustively researched it and made it come completely alive in the hearts and minds and extremities of readers, it would be practically the Into Thin Air of sealing disasters. It’s compelling, it’s well-written, the story is tragic and full of class frustration and grinding privation and the human spirit and all that good stuff, and, you know, these are people whose story should be told. You can’t imagine how bad it was to be a sealer in Newfoundland in 1914. They were all just off-season fishermen, and they would make an average of $28 bucks for the winter, just clubbing baby seals and trying not to think about it while they gradually acquired seven extra pounds of dried blood on their clothes and lost digits and hoped to return home to feed their families. And then, historical spoiler, through a colossal series of administrative failures, a whole bunch of them got left out on a literal ice floe for two days and nights and mostly froze to death. No, they did not receive compensation. It’s a great world.
One always hesitates to say “hey, go read this lurid tragic tale,” because it’s got an exploitative whiff to it, but in this case, because so few people know anything about this horrible thing, it should be regarded in the same vein of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire: a moment in the social history of labor in North America. However, the factory fire was a watershed event for working conditions, and this one didn’t change shit, so, there’s that.
My other read this week, I hesitate to mention. I got into bed and found my childhood copy of Jane of Lantern Hill, which, next to the Emily books and The Blue Castle, was always my favourite Lucy Maud Montgomery novel. On re-read, which took maybe an hour, because it is, you know, a book for children, I had that total You Can’t Go Home Again experience of being unable to re-immerse oneself into a place that was once yours, which was a bit of a bummer, but if the worst thing that happened to you this week was “failed to enjoy a novel for children as an adult,” seriously, buy a lottery ticket, right? Just once, just ONCE, though, it would be nice if Lucy Maud Montgomery had been allowed or wanted to write a book about kids with separated parents who just learned to deal with the fact that their parents no longer loved each other, as opposed to “oh, I never got your letter straightening out our tragic misunderstanding! I know it’s been ten years, but I’m totally going to leave my exciting Toronto social life and my great clothes and come back to PEI to, you know, boil clams for you or whatever.” I actually make a conscious effort not to do a lot of nostalgia-book stuff in this space, because we have Jaya on that beat, and there are so many fine books for adults, but you should also know that you are not the only person who attempts to jam their consciousness into their childhood reads in an attempt to ignore the clawed embrace of death which waits for us all.
See you next week.
Photo credit: Donnellys.com (go, spend hours)
J. Robert Salts, You Are Never Alone: Our Life on the Donnelly Homestead (Amazon)
Nicole is an Editor of The Toast.