Exploring writerly lives through literary pilgrimage
–By Robin McCarthy
I worked for a while as a cook on a fishing-boat-turned-small-cruise-vessel that traveled from Maine to Western Greenland over the course of my summer aboard. Upon starting this new job, I was shown my berth and handed an ancient hardcopy of Farley Mowat’s The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float, required reading for all crew headed to the southern coast of Newfoundland, which I was.
I read Mowat’s account of traveling the south coast by sea in moments before sleep and during long sea passages. My crewmates had all read it before my arrival, and they quizzed me daily on what was happening in the book. Oh, they’re running rum from Miquelon? Fantastic! Has he been dismasted yet? Keep reading!
Mowat and his sailboat, the Happy Adventure, arrived at the small outport fishing village of Burgeo in The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float the same day our ship’s transmission blew and we began a two-week stint tied up alongside Burgeo’s nearly abandoned fish factory. While most of that summer was spent pulling into small ports one day and leaving them in the early moments of the next, the ship was forced to linger in Burgeo while we waited for engine parts. Newfoundland’s south coast felt removed from time. Indeed, Newfoundland exists in its own unique time zone, three and a half hours behind Greenwich Mean Time. But it was more than that. When Mowat moved to Burgeo in the sixties, the town didn’t have roads yet, and even now, they’re limited. The town doesn’t buzz with industry the way we’ve become used to small towns doing elsewhere. Burgeo seemed removed from the forward momentum of North America in a way that I imagined local teenagers must hate and tourists found quaint.
The landscape was a wash of moss-covered hills and rocky shores dotted with coves, guts, islands and inlets. The far edge of town was marked by a large expanse of sand beach, rare for that part of the world. Like the rest of Newfoundland, the weather was usually foggy. Burgeo existed in a fitting mist.
When Mowat was writing about Burgeo, the fish factory was new; a sign of industry and prosperity for Newfoundland and its booming cod industry. By the time our boat arrived with its broken engine, the bottom had fallen out of the cod fishery and the plant was barely doing a business cooking bait fish into fish meal for fertilizers. Most of the buildings were empty, except for the carcasses of trapped animals rotting away in the dark. The boom times had passed in Burgeo.
When we first arrived, locals were curious about our ship, an antiquated kind of fishing trawler once common in that part of the world and now fully replaced, not by modern vessels, but by vacant dock space and the distinct lack of a commercial fishing industry. I spent much of my days greeting strangers stopping by to gather our stories and share a bit of their own. Always, visitors asked about Mowat. “Have you heard of Farley Mowat?” is a loaded question in Burgeo.
After exploring the South Coast by sail, Mowat bought a home in Burgeo with his wife, Claire, in 1962 and published a number of books about the area while he lived there. In A Whale for the Killing, Mowat retold the story of a Fin whale becoming trapped in a Burgeo cove in 1967. Burgeo’s sleepy, wholesome feel was disrupted when a handful of locals shot at the whale from the shore with rifles and otherwise injured the eighty-foot mammal with boat propellers. The whale was pregnant, and slowly, over the course of many days, she died from infected wounds. Mowat was influential in raising a public outcry, bringing international attention and plenty of negative publicity not just to Burgeo, but the commercial whaling industry in general. Then he wrote a book about it. The facts surrounding the incident are unclear, as Mowat’s own telling has been the most lasting and Mowat readily admitted he “never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
Almost fifty years after the whale was caught and killed, our ship was beginning its third day tied up at the fish plant when the local cab driver, a man named Corwin who was eager to help the shipwrecked sailors down at the old fish plant, arrived with his minivan to take us on a driving tour of town. Burgeo hardly required a driving tour, most of the land could be covered easily in an afternoon, but it was the commentary we appreciated. Corwin took us by Mowat’s house, which looked like all the other houses in Burgeo; a white one-story square with a couple ells set on a rocky inlet called Messers Cove. It was eminently practical for Burgeo, where a second story would face the wrath of winter winds and paint could never cling terribly long. Mowat’s house blended into its surroundings, and it seemed somehow fitting that it was there before Mowat moved to Burgeo and lasted long after his departure. Often, writer homes strike me as enchanted, hallowed spaces for the nurturing of language. Mowat’s house didn’t feel like that; it felt like a beat-up fisherman’s house in a beat-up fishing town.
In A Whale for the Killing, Mowat wrote:
Messers was our home and we had come to feel very much at home there. We had been given tolerance and friendship by all the families whose trim and cared-for houses stood, well-spaced, around the rocky rim of the clean little cove. They were people who had lived all of their lives, even as their forbears had done before them, in this place.
Corwin let the van idle in the driveway as he explained how A Whale for the Killing had divided the town, how even in 2010, folks in Burgeo fell into one of two categories; those who hated Mowat and those who didn’t. Supporters felt the book accurately represented an unfortunate time for the town. They recognized that shame had taken its toll on their home, but they glimpsed a writer deeply in love with the place in Mowat’s words, too. Opponents of the book were adamant that the representation of Burgeo was fictional and unfair. They felt Mowat made the entire town seem ignorant and cruel. After reading A Whale for the Killing, I could see the value in each argument. I thought it was possible that everyone was right.
When I went looking for a copy of A Whale for the Killing, I couldn’t find it in our ship’s library, which held most of Mowat’s work. My captain explained that she and he husband purposefully didn’t allow it on board. They had spent a great deal of time in this part of the world and when it came to the divide between Burgeo and Farley Mowat, their ship sided with Burgeo. I was struck by the polarizing effect of a single author. The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float was required reading aboard this ship, while A Whale for the Killing, written by the same man a few years later, was forbidden. It felt significant that a single author could push the pendulum so strongly in opposite directions. At first, it had seemed silly for my job as a ship’s cook to come with a reading list, but when examining the impact a single story could have on the ethos of a ship– or an entire town—required reading seemed to reveal its necessity.
Once our transmission was repaired, I had no desire to leave Burgeo. I liked the land and the people. I liked how time hardly touched this seaside community. I liked how easily I could talk to both teenagers and the elderly, how no one was a stranger. When we departed from the fish plant wharf, I fell terribly seasick. I spent that first day out of Burgeo retching over the rail and it seemed fitting; Newfoundland should be difficult to leave.
This past May, when Mowat passed away at 93 years old in Ontario, Burgeo remembered him fondly to the press. It’s been four years since I sat in Corwin’s cab and looked at Mowat’s house, since I listened to proud and broken-hearted folks tell me about their town and its writer. I live in the Midwest now, and my work happens in a classroom and at a writing desk, rather than a ship’s galley. Like Mowat, I write about my home and in so doing, worry I may one day lose it.
I still get lonely for Burgeo sometimes; still miss the roll of its hills and the Friday hum of the local bar, the bartender who told me I smelled like fish meal and diesel. I imagine Mowat missed these things, too, and more violently. I imagine his heart broke for years, that he was sick in his own way for the home he lost by telling its story for much of his life.
Robin McCarthy is a writer, teacher and student in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She studies fiction in the MFA program at Northern Michigan University and is an editor for the literary magazine Passages North. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Green Mountains Review, and NPR.