BOOKS

Romancing the Rock

Farley Mowat lauds the men of Newfoundland

Farley Mowat,John Bemrose October 16 1989
BOOKS

Romancing the Rock

Farley Mowat lauds the men of Newfoundland

Farley Mowat,John Bemrose October 16 1989

Romancing the Rock

BOOKS

Farley Mowat lauds the men of Newfoundland

THE NEW FOUNDE LAND By Farley Mowat

(McClelland & Stewart, 330 pages, $24.95)

In the introduction to his latest book, The New Founde Land, Farley Mowat tells the story of what first attracted him to Canada’s youngest province. In 1953, Mowat, then a 32-year-old biologist and writer from Ontario, got to know a Newfoundland sea captain, Josiah Coggins, who had anchored his boat at Port Hawkesbury, Cape Breton Island. Coggins’s vessel was an aging wreck, and he had no compass. One day, he set out nonchalantly into the teeth of an Atlantic gale, in peasoup fog, confident he could find his way home to Newfoundland. “I promised the Woman us’d be tied up alongside by Satiday night,” he explained as he drew away, “plenty toime to walk her off to church come Sunday marnin.’ ” As Coggins vanished into the mist, Mowat vowed, “Some day, I’m going to try living in a place where they make men like that.”

Eight years later, Mowat made good his promise when he and his wife, Claire, moved to the remote fishing village of Burgeo, on the island’s southern coast. Mowat plunged into outport life with a vengeance: he learned to jig for cod and to split and dry his catch. Above all, he learned to admire the tenacious, openhearted people who knew how to make a full life out of very little. Over the years, Mowat wrote

frequently about Newfoundland, scattering his observations in some of his more than 25 books. The New Founde Land draws together many of those essays about the Rock and its inhabitants into one comprehensive volume. Made up mostly of selections from his past works—many of them rewritten and updated—the book sings the praises of a way of life that is now all but vanished: the struggle of Newfoundland’s independent outport fishing families to wrest a living from the sea.

That view of Newfoundland leaves a great

deal out, including the lives of -

its city-dwellers and factoryworkers. But in holding to that theme, Mowat remained true to his original inspiration, Capt. Coggins. Mowat is a kind of latter-day Ernest Hemingway, attracted above all to male prowess and the male mystique. His portrait of life in Burgeo and other fishing outports pays only brief tribute to the women who raised families in difficult circumstances. The men interest him more: their skill with nets and boats, their colorful language. Even their dockside sheds, called “stores,” inspire him to un-

abashed lyricism: “This is the place where the slow, casual gossip of the sea is heard. And hands are always busy mending twine, baiting gear for the morrow’s trips to the ‘grounds’— for until the heart is stilled, the hands of an outport man are seldom idle.”

Above all, Mowat admires male courage. Surprisingly, he finds some extraordinary examples of it in the seal hunt. In the popular eye, the killing of seal pups, or “whitecoats,” is nothing less than a massacre of helpless animals by men who risk nothing. But as Mowat points out, that is not necessarily the case. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, outport fishermen flocked to join the spring sealing voyages into the ice floes. Large steamers dropped the hunters off in small groups along the ice—and left them there to do their killing. Mowat has collected some gripping eyewitness accounts of storms that smashed the ice, leaving the men to drift helplessly into the North Atlantic, many to their deaths.

Mowat’s recounting of the old seal hunts allows him to attack one of his favorite targets: the stupidity and greed of powerful employers, bureaucrats and politicians. He exposes the rapacity of some of the sealing captains, who risked their men’s lives for the sake of profit. But he saves his sharpest barbs for those who, in his view, were responsible for destroying the outport way of life in the 1950s and 1960s. For Mowat, the villain is Joey Smallwood, Newfoundland’s first premier. It was he who closed scores of smaller outports, forcing people to move to larger fishing and industrial centres. According to the author—and many Newfoundlanders—the premier’s program replaced something viable with a spurious kind of progress. “In 1961,” Mowat writes, “there had been no welfare officer and no unemployment. By 1967, Burgeo had both, as well as a fish meal reduction plant to spread its oily, nauseous fumes over the entire community.” Mowat’s anger towards Smallwood and the big fish companies who benefited from his plan parallels his rage against those who have pushed several of Newfoundland’s bird and animal species to near-extinction. As Mowat points out in the chapter reprinted from his 1984 book, Sea of Slaughter, people hunting simply for their needs do not elimi-

_ nate entire species. That

evil is committed in the service of industrialism, or what Mowat calls “the gross god Profit.”

Some readers may dismiss those arguments as emotional and old-fashioned. Mowat would probably accept both adjectives with pride. The author has been moved by the beauty of whales at play and by the sight of a lone fisherman managing his dory among the currents. Both are I clearly more valuable to him I than what happens in a thou5 sand boardrooms.

JOHN BEMROSE