Penguin Books, 2002
First published in: Books in Canada, 2002
Review by: Kerry Riley
Donna Morrissey, that fierce and funny new voice of the Maritimes, first rocketed onto the Canadian literary scene with her debut book Kit’s Law which earned, amongst a host of other honours, the Canadian Booksellers Association Libris award in 2000. The book found a permanent place in the hearts of many Canadians when Mary Walsh delivered a pitch-perfect rendition of it on CBC Radio’s Between the Covers. She has wasted no time following up her initial success with a new book, Downhill Chance.
In Downhill Chance, Morrissey returns to familiar territory–the outports of Newfoundland where Kit’s Law was also set and where she herself spent her childhood. “It was a dirty old night…” she begins (with some audacity) that saw Gid O’Mara and his family materialize on the mist-shrouded shores of Rocky Head, a six-house hamlet clinging to the eastern shores of White Bay, Newfoundland. Ostensibly shipwrecked, their mysterious, nocturnal appearance, richly exotic Irish brogue and the dark menace clinging to the patriarch leave no doubt that they represent far more than hard-luck travelers; collectively, they embody the “dark stranger”, so dear to the tellers of folk tales–agents of fate, harbingers of change and upheaval, and the pain that inevitably accompanies it. And change, indeed, comes tumbling in on the heels of their arrival. The world soon careens into the maelstrom that was the second world war, followed, in Newfoundland, by the vote for confederation, and the beginning of the end of a unique and particular way of life in the outports.
As the story begins, young Clair Gale, the main protagonist, and her baby sister Missy, are living out their last week in their own personal Eden at the family’s winter camp in Cat Arm, serenely oblivious to the forces of change gathering on the horizon. It’s only when the family returns to their summer home in The Basin, the very day that the recruitment officers are visiting the tiny outport, and her father, Job Gale, makes a precipitous decision to enlist, that fate sets Clair on her long uphill path through life.
Job, a deeply spiritual man, returns from the war broken, disillusioned, and guarding a dark and tragic secret. He lives only a few years beyond his return, and Sare, his wife, who is completely undone by the loss of of her husband, also dies shortly after, leaving the two girls orphaned. Clair, still very young, develops a secret fear that her failure to pray with true commitment–her recital of the Lord’s prayer had always been perfunctory, and often superceded by a heartfelt prayer for a “dolly”– might have contributed to her father’s tragic destiny, and that she has been banished from her Eden for a lack of religious imagination and awe. Clair projects this guilt and fear onto her Uncle Sim, Job’s brother, whom Clair despises for numerous reasons, including her belief that he has come between her and Missy.
With her parents gone, the young Clair is forced to leave The Basin, abandoning Missy to their uncle, in order to take a temporary teaching job in Rocky Head. Eventually she marries and raises a family there. Over the years, her dislike of Sim hardens while Missy, six years younger than Clair, and with a different perspective on their childhood, continues to defend her uncle. Consequently, the sisters grow more estranged.
Into this standoff is born Hannah, Clair’s daughter, the subject of the second half of the book. Unburdened by her mother’s experiences, Hannah grows close to her pixie-like Aunt Missy. Another rift threatens to come about, this time between mother and daughter. In the end, however, Hannah’s refusal to be bound by the past provides her with the knowledge necessary to avert yet another tragedy and to bring about the reconciliation of her family.
The theme of reconciliation dominates the book– reconciliation of the past and future, good and evil, childhood and maturity. The adult Clair eventually realizes that her violent dislike of the uncle, and her estrangement from Missy, were in part the product of her own buried childhood fears. Clair also begins to see that from Missy’s point of view, her own withdrawal and departure (Missy likened it to abandonment) compared less favourably than life with an uncle who, despite his many faults, raised her with affection and constancy. As Morrissey says near the end of the story, “A life lived only once, is a life unlived.” It is Clair’s ability to re-assess her childhood, and her willingness to accept and integrate her sister’s perspective, that is the story’s greatest triumph.
Other reconciliations are less successful. Having returned from the war, Job is unable to regain his peace of mind (His tragic secret only becomes known after his death and the details far exceeded anyone’s worst imaginings.) He cannot reconcile the fact that evil of such magnitude can exist, with God’s apparent approval, alongside the good. Unable to find his way back to Eden, Job does not survive. It is left to another character, Luke (whose trials are less traumatic) to provide what insight the book can offer on the issue: “I figured myself, a long time ago,” he says, “that God was too smart for a snake,” implying that evil must operate with God’s consent. “It’s all one garden..,” he says, of good and evil. Conquering the fear that comes from this understanding, he also acknowledges, is one of the greatest challenges of an introspective adult life. The English language, as spoken by Morrissey’s islanders, is rich and vibrant to the ear. First there’s the vocabulary: ‘scroop’ (a scraping noise made by, for example, a window raised in a sticky frame) ‘slouse’ (roughly equivalent to slosh) and ‘floption’ (a bit of batter spattered from a mixing bowl) to give a few lovely examples. And then, there is Morrissey’s special flair for the apt simile: “Slicked back smoother than a wet otter…” she says of a bridegroom’s Sunday-best hairstyle, and suddenly it’s impossible to imagine a more fitting description.
Morrissey is at her best illuminating and recording the subtleties of human interaction, the intricate social politics of a tightly-knit and isolated community, the telling detail of everyday life. She clearly loves her characters, and the story is driven by the sheer force of her enthusiasm. It’s only when she launches into grander moral or philosophical statements that her meaning occasionally (and just occasionally) becomes impenetrable, trapped in a web of allusions. Other small flaws also need pointing out: the tension over the upcoming vote for confederation builds convincingly over part of the novel, but this subplot is effectively abandoned in a headlong rush to the story’s end, with no satisfying portrayal of the outcome. Missy’s uncharacteristically abysmal judgement in allowing the young Hannah to accompany her on a clandestine late-night quest, while essential to the subsequent story line, is otherwise incredible, and acceptance of Gid O’Mara’s return, at just the moment required to tie up loose ends, begs some indulgence. In spite of these quibbles, however, the book prevails–first and foremost because Downhill Chance is a darn good story, told with wit and affection, by a superb storyteller. Morrissey’s voice, innocent, wise, funny and boisterous, and so expertly tuned to the music of the Newfoundland dialect, is simply irresistible. A reader in its hypnotic grip is propelled to the story’s tumultuous conclusion with little thought of resistance.