Quill and Quire

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Seldom

by Dawn Rae Downton

Anybody expecting the quaint, feel-good Newfoundland of E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News is bound for a surprise in Dawn Rae Downton’s memoir of early 20th-century Newfoundland. Life is a whole lot tougher in this compelling but perplexing story about Downton’s maternal grandparents.

Ethel Wellon and Sid Wiseman were married in 1922. She was 30, a teacher trained in St. John’s, and Sid, it seems, was not her first choice. The First World War and the dangers of the Newfoundland fishery had robbed Ethel of her first loves. Nevertheless she accepted 22-year-old Sid, an extremely handsome and prospering skipper of his own fishing boat. Within a few months it became clear that things were not going to work out, so Ethel went home to her parents, only to discover that she was pregnant already. Escape was therefore unthinkable, so she returned to Sid. For the next 35 years she bravely tried to protect her children from a man who became increasingly mean and violent.

Downton tells her story in delicious waves of detail and description, uncovering and then recovering the secrets of the family like the rising and falling tide. What happens to Ethel and her children is shocking, but Downton demonstrates that it would have been impossible for Ethel and the children to leave Sid, given the enormous social pressure on women to make the most of abusive marriages. That Ethel succeeded in keeping her children alive, and launched them into the world, makes her a candidate for secular sainthood.

What the book lacks is a convincing rationale for Sid’s meanness. Is the difficulty of life in Newfoundland the explanation for the twists in Sid’s soul? Not likely: Downton shows us other characters who face even greater struggles but do not become evil.

Another, even greater, mystery is how Ethel is able to continue to profess that she loves Sid to the end. Sex might have had something to do with it: he was good-looking and charming, and gave her six children in a decade. Downton never mentions the three-letter word, though, an omission that tells as much about the life in traditional Newfoundland society as does the rest of her evocative story-telling.