To begin reading Galore by Michael Crummey is to be invited into an epic novel of historical fiction that will compel you forward as you are overtaken by beautiful storytelling and fantastical events. For those who love to escape into their reading, this book will serve you well as it offers a true, unputdownable distraction from the reality of our more regular and everyday lives.
Galore was written over four years and is the third novel Crummey has set in Newfoundland. Born, raised and still living in the Canadian province that inspires his fiction, Crummey tackles some big themes in Galore. When asked about his newest novel, he responds by saying that "So much of Newfoundland's story seems tied up in the unlikely resurrection after all hope has been lost. Loss and heartbreak and grief. Yes. And otherworldly resilience in the face of it. Rebirth. Wonder."
Sprawling wondrously over two hundred years, coming to an end during World War I, Galore tells the story of two connected families, the Sellers and the Devines, and two connected fishing communities in remote Newfoundland, Paradise Deep and The Gut (both fictional). Many events are addressed over the length of the story - love and loss, family, religion; folklore; times of feast and famine; births; deaths; traditions; the development of the fishing industry; unionization; a ghost; curses; a witch; medicine and the Great War. Phew! Given all this subject matter, Crummey successfully achieves the almost unfathomable in packaging this sweeping story of Newfoundland within just 350 pages.
Galore opens with two births in the outport village of Paradise Deep - one a grown man who has been cut from the belly of a beached whale and the other a new baby to a village family. Over the course of a few days, both appear to be closer to exiting the world than staying in it. The man, pale, bleached ("almost-albino") and stinking of rotted fish, is mute, naked and initially thought to be dead. However, showing weak signs of life, he is tended by the town's "witch", the Widow Devine, matriarch of the Devine family and grandmother of the new baby, as well as a gifted healer and midwife. The baby is also weak and struggling to live - coffins are built for both man and infant. The stranger, unconscious and uncommunicative, gives the town's people much to consider: Who is he? How did he get in the belly of the whale? The name debate, very early on in the book, is an example of the humor to be found in Galore:
"He come right out of the whale's belly", James Woundy announced, as if he had been the only one person 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. Jonah 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."
"Goddamn it, James Woundy. Do I have to bring out the Book and show you?"
"Now, sir, as I cannot read, I don't see how that would go far to clearing the matter up."
"Well you'll just have to take my word for it then," Jabez said.
Judah is the name reached in compromise. The infant is named Michael. And so the stranger and child are baptised, Paradise Deep-style, passed among the branches of Kerrivan's Tree (a scraggly apple tree that produces sour fruit) in an effort to save their lives in a manner more in keeping with the folkloric traditions of the community than the ritualistic manner of organized religion. The tree, carried as a sapling to the village from Ireland many years before, is thought to offer strength and protection to those woven through its branches. Judah and Michael, both improve after this ceremony and are born-again into the community.
Crummey has long thought of "the outports [of Newfoundland] as Old Testament landscapes, places where it's easier to believe in a vengeful and jealous deity than in the gentle Lamb of God. So the Old Testament is a big character in the novel." Indeed, along with the punishing landscape and unforgiving weather, many of the characters' names, Mary Tryphena, Lazarus, Absalom, Eli, Abel, Esther and Levi (to name a few), are pulled directly from the Bible; each one of them eccentric, layered and fully developed. Many are uneducated, rough and carrying generation-long grudges. These people can be almost as harsh and imposing as the setting in which they live.
While "galore" denotes plenty, abundance and wealth, this novel traces not only the good times, but the more frequent hard times as well. Newfoundland, perhaps more so than any other province in Canada, is unique. Cast out in the Atlantic ocean, this isolated island was born through the strength and resolve of settlers from Ireland and Britain and the native "bushborns". Existences were carved out on the "Rock" (a nickname for Newfoundland) through fishing, trapping, whaling and sealing - some years more plentiful than others. The winter seasons were long and bleak; people starving to death during the seemingly endless frozen months. Yet, amongst all of these challenges to survival are times of plenty and times of hope. The characters in Galore pull together, individuals and families working as one to ensure not only the survival of each other, but the continuity of their community for the generations who will follow.
This review is from the April 20, 2011 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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