March 27, 2008
The Iambics of Newfoundland: Notes from an Unknown Shore
written by Robert Finch
reviewed by by Linda Hedman Beyus
A Place Where People Can’t Fish AnymoreJust in case you think this book is about meter in poetry, stop right there. The "iambics" in the title is spun from a phrase a Newfoundland hitchhiker throws at author Robert Finch, describing the province as "a place not like any other place in the world," adding, "if you can get the iambics of it."
Some of us know Newfoundland as the locale of the novel The Shipping News or as a place where cod fishing became history after its collapse and the groundfishing moratorium in 1992 created disturbingly quiet harbors.
Writing over a span of trips from the late 1980s to the late 1990s, Cape Cod writer Finch describes Newfoundland’s people, their livelihoods (and lack thereof), a dramatic landscape, and its history. It seems a kind of frontier — not a Wild East, maritime-style, but a place where time seems to have gone slowly, where people still sit in living rooms to talk about anything and everything (without an electronic device to stare at or play with). A place where old men who can’t fish anymore (not just due to their age) drive cars around waterfronts, checking out the weather on the seas because it’s bred into them, where neighbors share their moose stew and many live on the dole, and those in remote outports hang on as younger natives emigrate for jobs "away."
The appeal of Finch’s writing is his apparent love for this place and his skill in portraying its people with respect, awe, candor and wit, and without one bit of an outsider’s smugness. He’s a master of their speech, with the quirks of dialect sounding more like Ireland or Scotland than a Canadian province.
One can imagine the dramatic harbors inside Newfoundland’s long fjords with sheer cliffs blocking the sun and "houses perched like wooden limpets," and rocky islands teeming with birds. Finch has an unpretentious way of describing the landscape and people he actually does things with — he’s not just an observer. He joins a caribou hunt (a perhaps too-descriptive chapter for those who don’t enjoy hunting); helps rebuild a friend’s "Dogpatch" style wharf in Squid Tickle; sails to Newfoundland on a wooden schooner.
Here is a place where a polar bear floated into a harbor on an ice floe on Fogo Island and proceeded to play catch with a resident’s German shepherd. It’s a place where a beach made of curved red tiles, assumed to be odd beach stones, was discovered only 20 years ago to be Basque ship ballast from the 1500s supplying the whaling station on island. Recent archeological discoveries, Finch explains, have helped the island’s tourism, one of the few economic hopes besides the erratic capelin and crab fishing.
The downside of tourism, he says, is seeing the eccentric and unique St. John’s now turned into "Any City, North America," with its coffee bars, restaurants and upscale clothing shops.
Since Newfoundland is a half-hour ahead of Eastern Standard Time, Finch wryly notes, "This chronological quirk has messed with the head of more than one CBC announcer." One announced a show coming on at 9 p.m., adding, "For those of you in Newfoundland that’ll be at 8:30 — I mean 9:30 — no wait, oh heck, you people know when it is!"
Maps would have been a welcome addition to this book. I referred to my own atlas throughout, to see where each outport was. The only other problem for this reader was the tedious lexicon chapter filled with all the unusual words "Newfies" have for everything. Interesting, but not worth a whole chapter.
Newfoundland’s outport communities now struggle with severe economic hardships, leading to plenty of social problems. Finch writes, "For those who stayed, it is more than just a nostalgia for a vanished past that has caused such a profound reaction to the crash of the fish stocks … from the beginning, the identity of Newfoundlanders has been that of fishermen." Seasonal rituals connected them not only to the sea, but to one another through generations and community life, which hangs by threads now.
"How obscene it must seem to these people, in their quiet, desperate frustration, to look out daily on the waters of their youth and work and not be able to touch it." The Iambics of Newfoundland deftly navigates this neighboring island to our north and reveals resilient people "who continue, somehow, to perform an impossible balancing act."
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