Set in the decade between 1822 and 1832, this is a story of guilt and remorse as told by the main character. A domestic issue has triggered a murder. A man is trying to get on with a new life but is plagued with the ebb and flow of culpability and suspicion from the old one. Real events of the day (e.g. the migratory fishery, the Conception Bay north-shore Methodist revival, and the 1832 Sealers Strike) are used to explore and contrast the convictions of the two key characters: Ananias and Grace.
He is malleable and impressionable. Despite education and travel, he is irresolute and tentative regarding matters of religion and social justice in his new surroundings. She, on the other hand, is forthright and possessed of an incontrovertible, innate wisdom. Despite illiteracy and having never traveled more than ten miles from her birthplace, Grace is far from parochial. On the contrary, being unconfined by collective expectation or convention, the values she holds are unfiltered and organic.
After an upper class woman flirts with Ananias on a coach ride, he finds himself, ostensibly, arrested for theft. He is tried and endures a flogging, but with the dawning realization that he has really been found guilty of crossing a societal boundary. This event marks him for life, influencing his judgement and tainting his world view. In escaping to the New World he does not leave class division behind. He discovers that outside of the clergy, Newfoundland has two classes: fishermen (the working poor) and the merchant class. Finding himself straddling the two, he struggles to finds his place in a society that is still rapidly evolving.The truck system is in full force, with fishermen finding their lives to be a spiral of ever deepening indebtedness to the merchants who supply them with all the necessities of life in exchange for salt fish. Despite the anger and animosity (which lingers to this day) the fishermen never stand up to the merchants, except for a most notable historical exception, the Sealers Strike, perhaps the first major collective action in North America. Ananias’ ability to read and write is critical as an instrument of the strike, and his former position as a merchant clerk offers special insight to the cause.
The heroine of the book, Grace, is a “livyer”, meaning she was born in Newfoundland at a time when few were second generation. She has no formal education whatsoever and has only been marginally exposed to official religion (which she mocks to the point of distrust). We see in Grace’s character, a woman who eschews religion as a social convenience or expectation, but yet views her community responsibilities as intrinsic to the very core of her being. She is extraordinary for her time as she is unfettered by social constraints, raised without preconceived notions of propriety.
The villain in the novel (James Lannon) is tainted by his culpability as Captain of the Fanny, a ship that sets sail from Waterford in 1811 with provisions for 130 and a passenger list of 200. This culminates in the deaths of five people for want of food and water, and leads to a high profile trial in St. John’s in which Lannon is exonerated (largely by blaming the ship’s owner). It is one of a few coffin ships that make it to Newfoundland - a precursor to what would be a common occurrence during the Potato Famine of the 1840s.
A fourth character, Will, is a quick-witted and supportive friend of the hero whose quintessential personality and outlook is evocative of so many Newfoundlanders.
The novel offers sweeping historical events and evocative settings to complement the plot.
“That there is Cape St. Francis.” Captain Collin pointed to starboard. Then he called to the wheel. “Bring her head into the west-sou’west.”
“Aye, aye, Captain,” the mate returned.
“Not like the cliffs of Dorset and Cornwall,” I observed. “They are so black and so severe. As if they dared ships to come near to them. Is the whole island like this Captain? I mean, it looks like there couldn’t possibly be anywhere to put a ship in.”
“It’s not all like that son,” replied Collin. “Among those jagged cliffs there are hundreds of hidden jewels. Little coves where a man can hide away. Many’s done as much, Englishmen and Irishmen — surviving year to year on the sea, and on sack vessels like this one to bring them flour, molasses, clothing and fishing gear. Some ships this time of year will have butter and salt beef — pork if they’re in Dublin last going off.”
“Well I won’t be hiding,” I said with a forced smile, hoping to suggest that I had nothing from which to hide.