Wednesday, April 07, 2010

#16 - Sylvanus Now

Rachel loaned me Donna Morrisey's Sylvanus Now when we went to see (shhh! keep your thoughts to yourself) this in the theatre back when there was still snow on the ground. She gushed. I tucked the book away and meant to get to it sooner. But once I started reading it, not even the exhaustion of sales conference could stop me from finishing. It's addictive, sad, aching in parts and absolutely worth forcing yourself to muddle through the somewhat gross mass market edition (why this format; a TP could be so lovely!).

The novel takes place in Newfoundland in the mid-to-late 1950s when the government all but ruined the fishing industry and forced inhabitants from their outports into communities. The novel very much relates a society in flux: from fishing by hand in a little boat to giant trawlers with destructive nets; from an industry built up around drying salt cod to fish factories; from community built around family, neighbour and self-made lives to roads, towns, and government subsidies. Parts of the novel are achingly tragic, and Morrisey's descriptions of the havoc "new" "industrial" fishing has on the lives of her characters broke my heart into pieces.

The story centres around Sylvanus Now, the youngest son of Eva, a widow who had already raised many, many children by the time he came along. He's a fisherman, of the old-school variety, who prefers to go out with line in hand and fish the coastal waters near his outpost. The apple of his eye, Adelaide (Addie) sets herself apart from the rest of her kin almost immediately. She loves to be alone (almost impossible in a house full of so many kids) and wants to stay in school. When they marry, their relationship is all heat and tragedy, happiness and sorrow, but it's also about the essence of marriage -- the coming together in so many different aspects of life, how your lives become so entwined and in ways you never expect, and what it means to love someone over years and years instead of months and months.

The driving force of Sylvanus's life seems to be resisting a certain kind of change. I'm sure, we can all relate. The way of life, salted cod and all, has sustained his family for generations, and his obstinance to evolution seems level-headed in a way, knowing what we know now about the depleted state of our oceans and how we're fishing ourselves into extinction. Those were the most poignant moments in the novel -- how Morrisey describes the differences between how Sylvanus fishes and how it's done industrially. Like anything, progress comes at a cost: smaller fish in coastal waters; mothers harvested before they've had a chance to spawn; the decimation from trawling nets, all parts of what we sacrifice to have fresh fish on our plates.

It's an unbearably human novel, somewhat like Kevin Patterson's excellent, excellent Consumption. Morrisey does for Newfoundland what Patterson does for the Arctic, describe in indelible detail the destruction of a way of life, and while we're richer for her work, I'm not sure if our country's richer for the loss of Syllie's sustainable fishing industry. Maybe I'm making terrible generalizations, but this felt like a very fitting book to read one month away from celebrating the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, where we need, more than ever, to think about where we've come from and how we want to leave this earth for the next generations. Like Addie, I'd never leave the outpost either -- its beauty seemed breathtaking, regenerative and part of her, just like my cottage is part of me.

All in all, I'm so pleased I found time to read this book in between conferences, pet peeves, rain, sun, antiques, plane rides, train rides and uncomfortable hotel rooms.

READING CHALLENGES: Yet another for the Canadian Book Challenge. I wish I had a better idea of how many Canadian books I've actually read since last July.

3 comments:

Kailana said...

I love all of Donna Morrissey's books!!! I think she captures the east coast very well. :)

Buried In Print said...

I've read and loved Kit's Law and Downhill Chance but borrowed this one from the library and somehow didn't finish it: I didn't get far at all but your review encourages me to "set that right". And I know what you mean about that mass market edition, but it does still fit nicely in a bookbag.

chad said...

Deanna,
Not that you need another challenge, as you've said, but you'd be a great vocie for this book at Atalntic Canada Reads. You only need to write a ~500 word essay on why it should win, and, you pretty much have it done! Just saying ...
http://saltyink.com/atlantic-canada-reads/