Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Ice-Scabbed Cliffs and the Place Driven Story, Part Two

Places, just like people, have chief characteristics. Consider, if you will, the incredible power of the first impression.  If it is a desolate place, weather beaten and foreboding, the champion of this type of location, in my mind, would be Newfoundland. With its rocky shore, freezing cold climate and with the pounding it takes from Atlantic storms, it can be quite foreboding.  People settled there in order to fish the grand banks, but oh what a challenge the environment posed. The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx  features this landscape prominently.

From The Shipping News:

“The aunt looked out, saw the blue land, her first sight of the island in almost fifty years. Could not help the tears.

'Comin 'ome, eh?' said the man in the watch cap. 'Yar, that's ow it takes you.'
This place, she thought, this rock, six thousand miles of coast blind-wrapped in fog. Sunkers under wrinkled water, boats threading tickles between ice-scabbed cliffs. Tundra and barrens, a land of stunted spruce men cut and drew away.

How many had come here, leaning on the rail as she leaned now. Staring at the rock in the sea. Vikings, the Basques, the French, English, Spanish, Portugese. Drawn by the cod, from the days when massed fish slowed ships on the drift for the passage to the Spice Isles, expecting cities of gold. The lookout dreamed of roasted auk, or sweet berries in cups of plaited grass, but saw crippling waves, lights flickering along ship rails. The only cities were of ice, bergs with cores of beryl, blue gems within white gems, that some said gave off an odor of almonds. She had caught the bitter scent as a child.

Shore parties returned to ship blood-crusted with insect bites. Wet, wet the interior of the island, they said, bog and marsh, rivers and chains of ponds alive with metal-throated birds. The ships scraped around on the points. And the lookout saw shapes of caribou folding into the fog.

Later, some knew it as a place that bred malefic spirits. Spring starvation showed skully heads, knobbed joints beneath the flesh. What desperate work to stay alive, to scrob and claw through hard times. The alchemist sea changed fisherman into wet bones, sent to boats to drift among the cod, cast them on the landwash. She remembered stories in old mouths; the father who shot his oldest children and himself that the rest might live on flour scrapings; sealers crouched on a floe awash from their weight until one leaped into the sea; storm journeys to fetch medicines- always the wrong thing and too late for the convulsing hangashore.

She had not been in these waters since she was a young girl, but it rushed back, the seas hypnotic boil, the smell of blood, weather and salt, fish heads, spruce smoke and reeking armpits, the rattle of wash-ball rocks in hissing wave, turrs, the crackery taste of brewis, the bedroom under the eaves."


What distinguishes this passage has much to do with the choice of words. Honestly, who can write like this? Annie Proulx, that's who.  Using regional terms whose meaning can be easily ascertained,  this writing has both a presence and a sense of  "malefic spirits."

I did not come from Newfoundland. Alas, I have never been there, but I have a desire to visit, based on the books I have read. Growing up as I did in staid, and staunch old Toronto, I have no such scrobbed, or knobbed memories. Mine are of hockey games and tea served with shortbread cookies. This week, as the world of stage and screen visit my former hometown for the Toronto International Film Festival, I am astounded at how much the place has changed. Mary Pickford was the only movie star I ever heard of going there and Ernest Hemingway thought of Toronto as purgatory. Toronto and Detroit could well be described in terms of  the tale of two cities.

 Working on a memoir, I dwell in another time, when Detroit rocked and my city was described as provincial and dull.  Some places change and others never do.  I am thrilled with the present, still slightly in love with the past, and like everyone else, am horrified with the current plight of  Motor City. Knowing some of her citizens, as well as I do, I am hoping the tide will turn. Place driven stories are full of history; there are sagas under the corner stones of the most venerable, old buildings.

Newfoundland though, is a story in and of itself.  As with my memories of Toronto, the place itself  inspires me.

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