For its sheer extremes, both real and conjured, Newfoundland occupies a singular place in Canada’s history and literary imagination. While the typical Newfoundland narrative emphasizes the rugged terrain and pragmatic lifestyle of the land’s inhabitants – usually in a mode of straightforward naturalism – Michael Crummey’s third novel injects an element of magic realism to convey an otherworldly quality. The result is a work that surprises and reveals.
With this new novel, the very title of which suggests Newfoundland’s wealth of stories, Crummey, a Newfoundland native now living in St. John’s, reaffirms his position as a leading voice in the literature of the Rock.
Galore vividly imagines Newfoundland’s early permanent settlements, established around the beginning of the 19th century when English and Irish immigrants, among others, set up cod fisheries. Scattered along the coastline, these tiny settlements endured in an unimaginably hostile environment and with scarce resources. Focusing on two stark coastal communities – Paradise Deep and the Gut – Galore depicts multiple generations of two families divided by wealth, status, politics, and religion, yet inextricably bound by duty, shame, clandestine love, revenge, and the challenge of survival in the New World.
The English Protestant Sellers, headed by patriarch, magistrate, and tyrant King-me Sellers, reside in Paradise Deep, where they run a merchant operation and exercise significant economic and political power over the two communities. The Sellers’ connection to the Devines, a family of Irish Catholic fishermen living in the Gut, is a matter of great irritation for King-me, whose pride was long ago wounded by the Devines’ matriarch – known to all as Devine’s Widow – when she refused his proposal of marriage. An embittered King-me accuses Devine’s Widow of cursing the Sellers family and initiating a chain of inauspicious events that will forever bind the two families.
Devine’s Widow’s reputation for being a witch with supernatural powers remains with her throughout her life, and she is both feared and revered for it. However, the supernatural elements in Galore are not confined to one character. Folk remedies for strange afflictions, ancient pagan rituals, merwomen, a murderer’s ghost that haunts his wife, and mummers with uncanny insight all contribute to a portrait of a people caught between the living and the dead, the real and the phantasmagoric.
The most dramatic example of the novel’s otherworldly aspect is the presence of the mysterious, mute Judah, a seemingly ageless man (he appears unchanged throughout the two-hundred-year span of the novel) delivered to the settlements in the belly of a whale. Judah miraculously emerges alive, and exhibits remarkable abilities to promote healing and abundance for the people of the Gut. Despite his strangeness, which isolates him from the community, this mystical, self-sacrificing, Christ-like figure – who refers to himself as “God’s Nephew” – is one of the only truly sympathetic characters in the novel, unaffected by the bleakness of Newfoundland life.
Perhaps in an effort to provide a fanciful tale of early Newfoundland with a more substantial historical framework, Crummey introduces the well-known politician and union organizer William Coaker in the second part of the novel. Coaker, who founded the Fisherman’s Protective Union in 1908 and was heavily involved in Newfoundland politics around the time of the First World War, attempts to recruit union members from among the fishermen in the community, men who are suffering from the merchants’ stranglehold on fish prices and trade.
Coaker’s unsettling presence in the community, his dubious role in the passing of the Military Service Act of 1918 that brings conscription to the Newfoundland shore, and the union’s resulting loss of power and respect, usher in the anticlimactic close of the novel. With the youngest member of the Devine family gone to war, his fate undetermined, and other inhabitants of Paradise Deep and the Gut having fled elsewhere, the reader is left to wonder what will become of those who are left behind as the events of the 20th century continue to unfold.
Despite this, Galore remains a dense, intricate, and absorbing tale, rich in the nuances of human relationships. Those hoping for a plot-driven read will, however, be disappointed in what is primarily, and successfully, a character study that, while not exactly cheery, has charm galore.