There are winter days when, even as a weather-worn East Coaster, you simply don’t feel like wearing six layers of clothing or attempting the near-impossible task of walking as briskly as possible to your car while trying not to end up with your ankles by your ears. On days like that it’s better to shake out a packet of Carnation instant hot chocolate (or, for the fancier among us, reach for that emergency stash of hot chocolate from Sugah or Newfoundland Chocolate Company), settle into the squishiest, most overstuffed armchair you own, and cuddle up with a great book.
If you do decide to opt out of winter for the day, how do you choose the right book? For me, a good winter read is an immersive experience, with vivid characters, an epic story arc and a setting so real that, by the time I put down the book, I feel like I’ve lived there and then, in the world of the book, away from all this sleet and snow.
That’s the key to staying warm with books. Atlantic Books Today has the books to get you through at least a couple weeks’ worth of snow days. Buckle up, because we’re going to take you on a bit of a road trip (while the roads are still passable).
Growing Up Next to the Mental
Wish Mooney is just four years old when he finds the dead man in the Waterford River at nine in the morning. For most people, the discovery would be horrific, but Wish is so young that fear isn’t his first response, or even his second. In fact, he’s not even sure the body is human.
“I didn’t think it was a real person, mainly because I’d never seen a real person like this before. Absolutely motionless. Reminded me of the mannequins in the windows down at Woolworths—save for the pose, and his clothes.”
The discovery puts a keen focus on a central feature of St. John’s, rich in trope and theme. Wish’s childhood is spent living just seven feet away from the grounds of the Waterford Hospital—then the Hospital for Mental and Nervous Diseases. To the locals, however, it’s simply known as The Mental—because it’s the 1970s and unfortunately, political correctness wasn’t really a thing yet.
The Waterford Hospital opened in 1855, making it the oldest mental health hospital in North America. Callahan draws a vivid picture of what the institution was like almost 50 years ago: the chain-link fence topped with barbed wire that borders the large field, the brick buildings and the “ominous, sky-scraping smokestack.”
Patients rarely use the fields but the neighbourhood kids pick up the slack, playing sports or throwing snowballs, depending on the season. Here on rare occasions, the worlds of the kids and the patients overlap. As Wish grows up, a first encounter with a patient leads to lessons that his neighbours don’t fit neatly into the boxes society shoves them into.
Something for Everyone
House of Anansi Press
Depending on where you live, Moore’s latest collection of short stories may require a quick mental trip over the gulf or straight—but there’s very little time travel necessary. Most of the people who inhabit these stories don’t hail from the long-ago version of Newfoundland we read about so often; instead this book is populated by characters with their feet firmly set in the modern world—they’ve been devastated by the Pulse nightclub massacre, empowered by #MeToo, and one is so desperate to save his grandmother’s life that he’s willing to rob an establishment with a syringe.
These people—widows and students, nurses and sex workers—hustle across skywalks, watch YouTube and know a surprising number of guys named Chad.
Something for Everyone is true to its title; there really is a story to suit almost any taste in literature. It’s primarily a work of contemporary fiction, but the stories contain hints of other genres, from mystery to speculative fiction.
Overall, it’s a beautiful and sometimes biting depiction of modern-day Newfoundland (and in some cases, the wider world). Moore never flinches from the truth, no matter how much it hurts. And sometimes it does—but Moore’s work is compassionate. She’s received no shortage of critical praise over the years, but it’s worth noting again that she’s a clear-eyed writer, never forgetting the effects of a parental suicide on a nurse’s life, or an unwanted pregnancy on the mental health of a young woman.
Old Newfoundland isn’t completely absent though from the book and it makes its presence known in more than just the story of Guglielmo Marconi. Traces of the past show up in Moore’s Newfoundland like the sound of after-dinner jigs and reels carried on the unrelenting wind.
Moore’s pacing is impeccable. Her stories can be savoured one at a time or devoured as a 10-course feast.
St. John’s poet Agnes Walsh’s new collection is dedicated to her mother. It’s fitting then that the opening poem, which serves as a sort of prelude, is about her 93-year-old mother reliving old memories while recovering from a broken hip. “Made in Canada?” is about how despite spending years in Canada, it still isn’t really home to Walsh’s mother—and, as Walsh herself asks, why should it be? Her formative years were in Ireland, and
The ways of Canada were foreign to her / as hers would be to Canadians.
Walsh’s mother may have had Ireland on her mind, but Walsh is firmly planted in Newfoundland soil. While the collection’s overall narrative focuses on the decline of Walsh’s mother’s health, her death, and Walsh’s grief, the individual poems guide us through various places in Newfoundland and their histories.
In “Southern Harbour, Two Cemeteries, One Name,” Walsh walks us through a Southern Harbour graveyard, where we encounter a gravestone with the word “Toslow” (a resettled fishing community in Placentia Bay) inscribed on it, prompting readers to consider the plight of a community forced to relocate and the importance of remembering where you came from.
Although “Rushoon 1,” “Rushoon 2” and “Rushoon 3” are all set in different times, the common thread of domestic abuse runs through all three, highlighting the idea that no matter how quickly neighbours will pull together when someone needs a new roof, they’re still slow to help when it comes to “private matters.” These poems make it clear that no matter how much time passes, the scars left by these wounds are slow to fade.
Later in the collection, specific Newfoundland and Labrador locales are mentioned less, but the province maintains a strong presence in the imagery of Walsh’s poems, in her mother’s “floating mind,” her “harbour of drugs,” and later, in the “bunched paw mark of moose” and the “calligraphy of bird claw.”
Life on the Mista Shipu
When Robin McGrath and her husband decided to move from Conception Bay, Newfoundland to Happy Valley-Goose Bay in central Labrador in 2006, she was looking forward to a change of scenery. But when she embarked on a journey down the Mista-Shipu (or Churchill River), she discovered that she had far more to learn about her new surroundings than she realized.
McGrath’s first introduction to the reality of life in Labrador was as unfiltered as it could possibly be.
Innu environmentalist Elizabeth Penashue guided the eight-day survivalist trek from Churchill Falls to Gull Island. McGrath and 13 other travellers spent the time navigating strong currents, constructing Innu-style camps from scratch, searching for non-contaminated water and dining on boiled beavers and roasted porcupines. The trip also helped shape much of the work McGrath would do over the coming years.
Canoeing the Churchill River highlighted for me two of the things that became most important to me during my decade in Labrador: the people and the land.
The land and people of Labrador unite the articles and essays in McGrath’s book, Life on the Mista Shipu. Informed by her interactions with the people McGrath has met and befriended, and her experiences exploring and diving headfirst into Labrador and its culture, the non-fiction collection is broken down into categories by theme: Life on the Coast, Justice, Food, Natural History, Visitors and Sojourners, Labradorians at Home and Away, On Land and Sea, People of the Interior, Life and Death, and L’Envoy.
The result is a marvellous and thorough collection where story, history and culture cross paths, intermingle and provide an informed view into an area many of us will never have the opportunity to experience firsthand.
A Boy From Acadie
Bouton d’or Acadie
Just a 23-hour drive (including the ferry ride) southwest from Happy Valley-Goose Bay, nearly 90 years ago on December 18th 1927, a baby boy was born to a large Acadian family living in Cormier’s Cove, New Brunswick. Like many children at that time, the boy didn’t have an easy childhood. His family ran a small farm and, even at the young age of six, the boy was expected to help out, fetching water from the well, weeding the gardens, piling wood, and feeding livestock.
His mother was devoted to her family, but experienced chronic depression after losing an infant and had frequent debilitating headaches. When she wasn’t feeling well, the boy would have to be quiet and his sisters would have to step in and cover the meals. She died young, when he was around seven.
All this was in addition to studying at the one-room schoolhouse with its 57 children, single teacher and a big black stove to keep them all warm. The boy wasn’t cut out for farm work; school is where he thrived. While the rest of the children in his family left school at the end of Grade 7, the boy’s sister helped pay his way through high school, and more family members chipped in to get him through university.
The boy was Roméo LeBlanc, who eventually worked his way up through various political posts to become Canada’s first Acadian Governor General. In addition to the story of Roméo’s childhood, A Boy From Acadie also tells how he gave more than 800 speeches, protected the rights of Canadian fisherman by establishing the important 200-mile fishing limit off Canada’s coasts, dined with the Queen of England and hosted President Nelson Mandela.
A Boy From Acadie book makes it clear that despite all this, Roméo’s family and childhood home in New Brunswick remained closed to his heart. In that sense, it acts as a tour of Acadian culture itself.
Searching for Terry Punchout
Province hopping again, a shorter drive this time, Tyler Hellard’s debut novel takes place in a small (fictional) Nova Scotia town, called Pennington. To hear Hellard’s main character Adam tell it, though, it doesn’t matter that the little community isn’t real—because it’s intended to be a stand-in for all the small East Coast towns that do exist.
Within the first few pages, Adam returns to the town after spending years out west. He describes Pennington as:
a small town in the way all towns in Nova Scotia are small. In the summer, it smells like salt and in the winter, it snows that wet, heavy Maritime snow—heart attack snow, they call it. Everybody knows of everybody else and their business… It’s a town that thrives on routine and expectation and neighbourly kindness. There are hundreds of towns just like this—Pennington, Pugwash, Tatamagouche, Antigonish, Pictou—and the specifics don’t matter.
I won’t pretend this paragraph didn’t cause me to feel a bit of knee-jerk indignation. I’m someone who doesn’t mind making the drive to Tatamagouche just for the beer, and I was recently amazed by the high-quality service at St. Martha’s Regional Hospital in the unique small town of Antigonish.
But, shoving my internal biases aside and reminding myself it’s the character saying this, not Hellard (who is from PEI), Pennington works well as a familiar-feeling small Canadian town obsessed with hockey. Whether or not my Nova Scotian sensibilities are comfortable with the sameness of our towns, that idea serves as a benchmark for how Adam’s feelings change. The more he learns about his hometown’s role in his family’s history, and the more time he spends with old friends, the more assumptions he shoves aside.
Until he finally realizes moving away isn’t quite the same as moving on.
Now it’s time to hunker down. Hit up your local bookstores and libraries, and most importantly, restock the hot chocolate cupboard…
But wait! Here are some additional winter reading suggestions from our editor, all with a strong setting to take you away from it all:
Ned Pratt: One Wave
Goose Lane Editions
“He shows us the beauty of a quiet moment in a rugged and difficult place,” writes Anne Chafe, director of The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery in her forward. Perhaps this is the best description of how to find warmth in a winter space. It’s like the old adage, “There’s no bad weather, just bad preparation.”
Pratt embraces this harsh land, celebrates it, in all its glorious starkness. His sharp, in-your-face angles crash hard, whether he’s giving us a glimpse of ocean from a ferry, a wave crashing over a breaker, a snowdrift, a red-striped trailer or a guardrail by the roadside, fog on rocks, a frozen slab of seawater or a lone shack shelter in a storm of white.
These photos are so illustrative one might wonder if they are in fact drawn that way. They aren’t. They simply take the elements in their arms, or lens, with well-thought-out abandon. Taking in One Wave is like watching an awesome storm through your window.
Threads in the Acadian FabricSimone Poirier-Bures
Stories of nine generations of Poiriers—whirlwind touring, sometimes by force, from France to Port Royal to Beaubassin to Port Toulouse to Isle Madame and Halifax—told by the Evelyn Richardson Award-winning Simone Poirier-Bures give insight into the collective experience of Acadie, the physical and cultural landscape.
Sit (warmly) at home, and imagine a home as seen from above, dating way back, with slate stairs and surrounded by trees, all bright and filled with souvenirs. Think sunny kitchens where recipes come to life, wall stencils full of stories and generations of DIY ingenuity that somehow comes together just right. Think animals, inside and out. A casa abierta generates warmth from all the life inside and around it. Even in such a lively house, Baxter and Miller tell us, comes a time “to go in, cozy up, and rest for a while…and dream some new dreams, while the snow flies.”
What Your Hands Have Done
Clearly we’re not above romanticizing our region. We live here for a reason after all. But, as much as we want to trumpet its many charms it has its dark side, its “world of hard-scrabble, hard-luck ports and hard-living, hard-drinking fishers” as George Elliott Clarke puts it on the jacket of Chris Bailer’s new poetry collection. Bailey’s voice here is all authentic; he’s a North Lake, Prince Edward Island fisherman and an award-winning poet. A significant portion of his poems reference fish in the title; other eye catchers include “Crow Piss: a Pantoum,” “Beetles Running Mad,” “Uncle Stormcloud” and “Like Warren Zevon.” This is the fishing life of the 21st century.