Heather Smith, a Newfoundlander who now makes her home in Waterloo, Ontario, sets her debut novel against the backdrop of the 1992 cod fishing moratoriums that resulted in the loss of approximately 30,000 jobs in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The story centres on 16-year-old Kit Ryan, whose fisherman father, Phonse, finds himself out of work after the moratoriums are put in place. With no job prospects on the horizon in their small village of Parsons Bay, Kit’s parents decide to relocate to St. John’s, where they can stay with Kit’s uncle, Iggy, and hopefully find work.
Kit’s life, already made difficult by Phonse’s alcoholism, becomes more so with the move. Ridiculed by the “townies” for her accent and small-town ways, Kit’s only friend is a fellow outcast named Caroline. A chance encounter with Elliot, a cute but infuriating boy (the soon-to-be ex-boyfriend of Kit’s chief tormentor), leads to an unexpected romance that is as true-to-life and heartwarming as they come.
While the relationship with Elliot is an important plot element, the meat of the story is Kit’s tumultuous relationship with her father. Refreshingly, Smith chooses not to cast Phonse as an abusive alcoholic, but accurately portrays the mood swings, unpredictability, and misunderstandings that are hallmarks of the disease. Kit’s response is also on point: she is understandably angry with Phonse, lashing out with healthy doses of teenage sarcasm and attitude while nursing her own hurt and disappointment. In what becomes an overarching theme, she eventually learns to forgive, if not condone, his behaviour.
Kit is a likable, sympathetic heroine who is often funny in a goofy, endearing way. The supporting characters are equally strong – there are no duds or half-drawn bit-players to be found – while the language convincingly evokes the novel’s East Coast setting without resorting to cliché.
With sprightly dialogue, relatable characters, and a story that delves into serious subject matter without becoming morose, Baygirl is a balanced, well-written debut.