Review by Kerry Riley
***April 2011 Update: Some much deserved international attention: Galore is shortlisted for the IMPACDublin award.
Bewilderment is the only appropriate response to the fact that Michael Crummey’s latest novel Galore was shut out of this country’s two glamor awards for fiction – an unsuccessful contender for the 2009 Governor General’s and overlooked completely for the Giller. It’s remarkable achievements were, however, recognized by the Canadian Authors’ Association and the 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book.
Sprawling across two centuries, from the early days of settlement on the unforgiving shores of Newfoundland to the First World War, Galore is, on the surface, a deeply affectionate homage to a place acknowledged by all who have set foot there to be strangely out of time, “a medieval world that [is] still half fairy tale.” It is also a story of a people’s stubborn love of a land that has just as stubbornly refused to love them back, and an examination of the mythology of place.
Galore traces the histories of two founding families of Paradise Deep, the Sellers and the Devines and begins as child Mary Trephina Devine lays eyes, for the first time, on Judah, the mysterious and unearthly stranger who has arrived, straight from the sea, as it were, to be her eventual husband, and whose presence will shape the destiny of her community. Dense with allusion and allegory, six generations of intertwined family history encapsulates the folk history of coastal Newfoundland as the tiny settlement moves through stages of development common to most emerging societies. Suffice to say that superstition, religion, science and medicine, education and eventual economic emancipation and political intrigue all leave their mark on life in The Deep, and the result is unique to the place.
AN HOMAGE TO A UNIQUE ORAL CULTURE
This is triumphant and majestic storytelling. In fitting tribute to the Newfoundland outport idiom and story-telling tradition, of which Crummey is a self-identified admirer, it is the language that brings the characters to vibrant life. Pitch perfect and powerful in its simplicity, the dialogue is the heart of this novel. Although the voice is rough, it is also precise, forceful, full of grandeur, and sparkling with wit, respect for the glamour of words and delight in a well-turned phrase, everywhere evident.
One is never in doubt as to the meaning of a character’s speech. Consider this description of Bride, a young woman of Paradise Deep, provided by Barnaby Shambler (publican, undertaker and member of the District Legislature) and her soon-to-be-if–not-already famous retort to a potential molester:
Bride was never a child, is the truth of it, Doctor. I minds the time Thomas Trass tried to come aboard of her when she wasn’t much above twelve. Trass was drunk and pawing at her and he said, Bride, I’d love to get into that little dress of yours (…) And Bride said, Sure there’s already one asshole in there Mr. Trass, why would I want another one.
There is more to Bride, however, than quick and precocious retorts. We are further advised that:
[s]he was pious and demure and all spine, she was peregrine and aloof, a vulnerability about her that she could bury or wield like a stick.
The Trim brothers, Obediah and Azariah, particular favourites of mine, function as tribal bards, the history of the families of Paradise Deep their personal catechism, parts of which go as follows:
Obediah: James Woundy now, he was a lazy stawkins.
Azariah: Not quite right in the head, but sweet as molasses.
Obediah: Sweet as molasses and just as slow.
Azariah: He had the one daughter. And James Woundy had all he could do not to choke on his food so there’s no telling how he managed it.
Obediah: The child’s mother was Bridget Toucher and the Touchers was a hard crowd to grow up a girl among.
English, as spoken by the inhabitants of Paradise Deep, is recognizably English yet utterly distinct. One of Crummey’s professed interests in writing this book was to represent the unique oral culture that is fast disappearing from the Maritimes, and Newfoundland in particular. It is to his everlasting credit that he has recreated this artful speech so recognizably, consistently, and in the service of such resplendent characters.
MYTH-BUILDING AND THE MUTABILITY OF THE STORY
One fascinating aspect of Crummey’s story is that in the process of creating a mythology for this small pocket of Newfoundland he has illuminated so clearly the process by which a myth is created. As the facts of experience lay down history, the story grows forward. The community evolves from subsistence conditions where life itself is a triumph and moves through predictable eras of development. As the history moves forward, carried in the particular experiences of individual lives, however, the story also evolves backwards, the quotient of magic and mystery increasing as time separates the teller from the original experience. Details are conflated, the “truth” overlaid with competing versions of the same event, gaps filled in with fabrication, and all subjected to the warp of memory. It is an accepted fact, for example, amongst the people of The Deep, that Judah, the stranger alluded to earlier who arrived, mysteriously, at a time of great need, was cut from the belly of a whale by the Widow Devine. Yet even his name, a conflation of the biblical names Jonah and Judas, is a reminder of the mutability of facts. This process is illustrated in the following conversation between two inhabitants of The Deep:
He came right out of the whale’s belly, James Woundy announced, as if he had been the only one present to see it. –As God is my witness so he did. Just like that one Judas in the Bible.
–Not Judas, you arse.
James turned to look at Jabez Trim. – Well who was it then, Mr. Trim?
–Jonah, it was. Johah was swallowed by the whale.
–You sure it weren’t Judas, Mr. Trim?
–Judas was the disciple who betrayed Our Lord for thirty pieces of silver.
–And he was thrown overboard, James said. – That’s how I minds it. Thrown into the ocean for betraying the Lord. With a millstone about his neck. And God had him eat up by a whale. To teach him a hard lesson.
–Jonah was fleeing the Lord God Almighty, Jabez insisted. –God chose him to be a prophet and Jonah had rather be a sailor and he ran from God aboard of a ship. And he was thrown into the sea by his mates to save themselves from a savage storm the Lord set upon them. And God sent a whale to swallow Jonah.
–That’s a fine story, Mr. Trim, James said. – But it don’t sound quite right to my memory.
Here we see the reverse evolutionary process operating in situ. In this instance, Jabez Trim has a source to consult and is able to preserve the original story. However, his bible, the only copy available to the entire settlement, was salvaged from the stomach of a cod and is damaged and incomplete. Accurate perpetuation of other missing portions of the Christian mythology in Paradise Deep seems much less certain. Just as the evolution of a species can take sudden and unpredictable leaps when the process of reproducing the original genetic code is interrupted in some way, so too can cultural codes evolve in surprising and erratic directions when access to original sources is interrupted. As the narrator himself says, “It seemed more likely the story of the whale was born from Judah’s strangeness than the other way round.”
Crummey peppers his story with further reminders of how facts evolve into myth. King-me relates two competing stories regarding the origins of the name of the “French cemetery” while giving the newly arrived Protestant Minister a tour of the town and freely admits he neither knows which is true, nor cares. As further example, people of The Deep specifically remember the Widow Devine’s words when she cursed King-me, as being,
“May the sea take you and all the issue of your loins,”
but, tellingly, this memory emerges only after Sellers loses his son and daughter-in-law to a shipwreck. This process also explains, neatly, why it is that in our great traditions magic and miracles belong to the “long ago and far away,” golden ages, and dwindle in direct relation to the story’s proximity to the present.
The legend of Mr. Gallery’s ghost is another case in point. Mr.Martin Gallery was once a fact – a living, breathing, and obsessively jealous husband of Virtue Gallery, who killed a man he falsely accused of admiring his wife, caused the death of his own unborn baby, and, in the end killed himself. The newest generations of Paradise Deep, who have inherited the story of Mr. Gallery’s ghost, are haunted figuratively by this tragic account of madness and malice. The old Gallery property is still a place to be avoided. The earlier generations, however (or so the story goes) were haunted quite literally by Mr. Gallery’s ghost. But then, they lived in a time when ghosts were much more real.
The tale of this shade’s return to The Deep provides one of the most disturbingly eerie ghost stories in recent (or even distant) memory. Crummey the storyteller here masterfully exploits the negative tension that results when our accepted reality is challenged by the calmly factual recitation of the impossible and the unease with which society confronts primal human nature. Jealousy, it seems, is an emotion not easily killed, and, after his suicide, in the way of ghosts (or collective psychological scars, call it what you will) Mr. Gallery’s spectre begins to manifest around the town, at first only in glimpses, but culminating in a feet-first materialization through the thatched ceiling of the Seller home, at which his wife had taken refuge. Virtue, true to her allegorical nature, understanding that the ghost has come for her, returns to her marriage house to avoid bringing harm to her hosts, and the ghost follows her – settling in as a brooding, watchful presence in her parlour, although
Mr. Gallery was seen at times perched like an owl on the roof of the house and people occasionally crossed paths with him on the trails in the backcountry, though he took no note of other travellers, muttering fiercely to himself as if in argument with the universe itself.
As one might expect, the power of Mr. Gallery’s manifestations diminishes over time, eventually fading to one of the“ pale shadows cast on the present by faces from the past.”
ALLEGORY AND ALLUSION GALORE
The distinct and earthy roughness of the voices in this story provide a balancing counterpoint to the loftier concerns at play. Like all great storytelling, (and I use that word advisedly) Galore is a universal story made particular. Motifs which have been recorded in our stories since we began telling them are once again at play in this new found land.
That the story takes place in a garden of Eden, of sorts, is clear. Paradise Deep comes complete with Kerrivan’s Tree, an apple tree brought from Ireland a century earlier and trailing an assortment of ancient Keltic rites and supersitions with it. The apples it manages to produce in this hostile new environment are too bitter to eat. Knowledge of life here is not sweet.
Influence in the tiny community is shared between two dominant families, the aptly named Sellers and Devines, who can be said to be its head and its heart, respectively. The allegorical nature of their roles becomes apparent as the relationship between the Sellers and Devines is revealed.
King-me, described as someone who “would skin a louse to make a cent,” is the Sellers patriarch and the settlement’s first entrepreneur. He is, as his name suggests, commerce incarnate. The primary landowner, businessman and employer in Paradise Deep, King-me controls the economy there, and thus wields the power of life and death over the inhabitants. He has no compunction about exploiting this situation. His name derives from the fact that, far back in the early, hard scrabble days of the settlement, he owned the only chessboard in the community, and therefore, as one might expect of a god of material necessity, and as tyrants large and small, before and since, have done, he felt entitled to create his own set of self-serving rules.
The Widow Devine, the matriarch of that family line, is intuitive to the point of clairvoyance, skilled in the art of healing and midwifery, wise in the ways of nature, and widely suspected to be a witch. She is the mysterious but vital life force and draws her power from nature. Reduced to an outwardly penurious existence because of her defiance of Sellers, she nevertheless also exerts curious, and ultimately more potent, sway over the fate of the community. As midwife and healer, she, too, wields the power of life and death and the apparent success of a curse hurled at King-me suggests even more profound abilities.
The antipathy between the two families has its origins in King-me’s clumsy marriage proposal to the Widow, who was, at the time, indentured to him as a young Irish maid. His argument in favour of the match was, as one might expect, a material one, the material world being the only one in which he could navigate confidently. She chooses freedom over security and refuses him, well aware of the soul-destroying nature of the proposed union. Ignorant of his own human nature and at sea in the realm of emotion, King-me spends the rest of his life in hostile denial of his unrequited love for the Widow – as miserable as anyone is who cannot reconcile the practical and spiritual aspects of life.
Although sharply divided by their natures, the Devines and Sellers are, nevertheless, dependent on each other. The Devine family survives because of the fishing industry underwritten by Sellers, yet the Sellers family must rely more than once on the Devine’s healing powers and keen understanding of human nature. The co-dependence of these two polarities (head versus heart, reason versus imagination, necessity versus freedom, Humanism versus Romanticism) and our ongoing attempt to reconcile them, then as ever, defines the push and pull of our lives, and thus the content of our stories.
Throughout the story, the Widow and Sellers, and all who share their blood, remain true to their allegorical natures, in matters both small and large. If the reader harbours lingering doubts about whether this tale is meant to be allegorical, consider the fact that when a woman named Virtue manages to briefly bridge the divide between Sellers and Devines, the resulting compromise leads to a small miracle. Education arrives in the village in the form of Ann Hope, and science is represented in the person of Harold Newman, an atheist, and true Enlightenment man. Although both Newman (science) and Hope (education) cannot deny the power of the Widow Devine, they remain uneasy about collaboration with things beyond understanding. As is only natural, it is the Devines that are associated with the arts, being gifted musicians, and bringing, through an act of obsessive heroism, literature to the community.
Into this standoff comes the talismanic Judah, borne to the community, according to the mythology, in the stomach of a whale. Even the beast that brought him has an aura of holiness about it which the inhabitants of the struggling settlement recognize immediately and honour with a ritual slaughter.
They weren’t whalers and no one knew how to go about killing the Leviathan, but there was something in the humpback’s unexpected offering that prevented the starving men from hacking away while the fish still breathed. As if that would be a desecration of the gift.
As mentioned earlier, Judah slips, corpse-like from the belly of the whale when it is slit by the Widow Devine, as the butchering proceeds. His miraculous revival is not the greatest of his peculiarities. He is clearly meant to be a Christ figure. The indicators are numerous. He has a curious chalky complexion which is compared to the Eucharist, the flame-like luminosity of his white skin is noted repeatedly. His “birth” into the community is a virgin one. After he sacrifices his life to save the Devine men, he is confined to a tomb-like fish room for many years, and is believed to have died there. His faithful wife has visited his place of confinement like she was “holding a vigil at a gravesite.” Only later is it discovered that the “tomb” is empty, and Judah, presumably, miraculously resurrected. However, he is not purely a Christ figure. Self-identified as God’s nephew, he is mute. He has come from the ocean depths, he stinks of fish, and is nicknamed The Great White, and is thus undeniably linked with Melville’s Moby Dick, and the enigma of life. As the fishermen of The Deep themselves construe, his appearance on their shore could not be explained and
life was a mystery and a wonder beyond human understanding…
True to the nature of myth, Judah is a conflation of ideas and precedents that hold meaning for the inhabitants of Paradise Deep.
Although his precise nature must remain undefined, King-me immediately recognizes Judah as the enemy, insisting that the Widow conjured him from the depths and feeling the terror of a wholly practical man confronted with the ineffable:
Watching Judah emerge from the whale’s gut, King-me felt the widow was birthing everything he despised in the country, laying it out before him like a taunt. Irish nor English, Jerseyman nor bushborn, nor savage, not Roman or Episcopalian or apostate, Judah was the wilderness on two legs, mute and unknowable, a blankness that could drown a man.
Also true to her allegorical role, The Widow is Judah’s natural ally and protector. Although the stranger is first housed with the Sellers, King-me cannot abide his stink, and the Widow takes him under her wing, nurturing him, and eventually, saving him from execution by arranging for his marriage to her granddaughter. In this way she insures that, as the generations pass, Judah’s spirit is preserved, at least for awhile, in the place.
Exact gloss of the character of Judah remains enticingly elusive. Human history has been a succession of attempts to build community, and those who study such things have long been fascinated with the secret of success or failure of this most basic of human endeavors. What is it that allows one attempt to take root and flourish while another withers? The loss of what essence dictates the fall of a civilization? While Judah, on one level, is clearly meant to be a sort of New World Christ figure, he is something more. His clear associations with Moby Dick, and thus the deepest mysteries of life, give him a grander scale and perspective, implying both that he is a re-manifestation of something more primal, and closely allied with nature (the Widow) . He seems to represent a sort of spiritual (although not necessarily Christian) Grace, the essential spark that allows a human community to establish and, in its own peculiar way, accomplish something extraordinary, where others are extinguished. There is a fascinating episode involving the offspring of a Sellers/Devine union, in which Eli Sellers attempts to return to the depths of the sea in a mechanical contraption called the “sculpin” but is disastrously unsuccessful. Technology, it seems, cannot help us find our way back to nature.
Like the candle-flame to which he is so closely associated, the spirit of Judah burns brightly in Paradise Deep for its fatefully allotted time. His son, Patrick, brings the gift of literature to the community, and meets out stern, Old Testament style justice when King-me’s descendants fail in their moral duty. During the time of Judah’s influence, the people of Paradise Deep managed, with the stubborn tenacity of a barnacle, to establish themselves in Newfoundland, and from their engagement in the eternal battle between human necessity and imagination, fashioned an utterly unique culture. By the First World War, however, the outside world has begun to encroach upon the settlement, brought, in part by William Coaker, who introduces the hope of economic emancipation and prosperity to The Deep in the form of a Fisherman’s Protective Union. As improved communications and transport brings the outside world closer, the old ways and unique oral traditions fade and the spirit of the place begins to flicker. Abel, Judah’s great grandson, returning wounded from the war aboard a naval vessel, experiences a mysterious metamorphosis, and, shortly after a ghostly visitation by a whale, while on deck one dark night, is reclaimed by the sea in a transcendent ending that is also a new beginning. This reunion of primal spark with its original source, is recounted in a passage of great power:
There wasn’t another soul out in the drizzle and bitter wind when he spotted the whale steaming clear of the ship’s wake, so close he could see the markings under its flukes, the white of them glowing a pale apple-green through seawater. The massive fan of the tail tipped high and disappeared as the whale sounded and he leaned forward in his wheelchair, expectant, as if he’d been told the humpback would breach, rising nose first and almost clear of the water, kicking up a wreath of foam as it fell back into the sea. The whale came full into the open air a second time and a third, it almost seemed to be calling his attention. And something in that detail turned like a key in a lock, a story spiralling out of the ocean’s endless green and black to claim him.
As the final words in this remarkable tale make clear and which I leave to the reader to discover for himself, all the details of Abel’s experience (and thus all those who came before him) were merely the practical manifestations of a far deeper pattern — an eternal story repeated over and over, wherever and whenever the light emerges from the depths.
Crummey has, in the past, expressed concern over the sadness of things lost to time. In his earlier novel River Thieves, he focused on the demise of the Beothuk culture in Newfoundland. He has also expressed his admiration for, and regret at, the loss of the oral storytelling traditions and folk culture of Newfoundland and a wish to capture its essence before it was too late. In Galore, Mr. Crummey’s grasp may have exceeded his reach. The story he has created has the power of myth and works equally well on all levels of reading. A compelling folk history and record, with its own internal integrity and logic, it also functions flawlessly as allegory. Characters both large and small interact with each other in a way that is true to real life and to their allegorical natures, so that life and metaphysics become seamlessly intertwined. The figurative content of the story is extraordinarily rich. This admittedly lengthy review has only begun to explore its myriad interconnected metaphorical threads. The wealth of biblical allusions alone, which are seamlessly incorporated into the weft of this story (for example the relationship between Lazarus and Judah) provide further tantalizing topics of analysis. Crummey’s commentary on the church and its relationship to the elemental forces of life, is another rich vein to be mined. This ability of a story to not only withstand detailed scrutiny but to reward it with further insights and revelations is a measure of its significance. In Galore, Mr. Crummey has presented the culture he admired so much with a significant gift – a richly interconnected, self-sufficient mythology that, in its telling, both illuminates the process of its creation and provides a glimpse of its ultimate source.
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