This is Part 6 in my Primer on the Newfoundland Novel. Click here to read the previous posts in the series.
“It is better to have no history or an imagined one?” – Bernice Morgan
Bernice Morgan’s first novel, Random Passage, was published in 1992. Historically, by no means is it “the first Newfoundland novel” – dozens precede it. However, to my mind, it nonetheless serves as a kind of Ur-text, a crystallization of how Newfoundland imagines itself – and a starting point for many of the texts that came after it. But perhaps I feel this way because I was only 9 years old when it was published, and so my cultural and historical awareness developed in a post-Random Passage context. How did Newfoundlanders imagine their history before Random Passage? (I mean, obviously they imagined it, but how did those imaginings look?) I’m not certain. What I am certain of is that Bernice Morgan’s account of rural Newfoundland’s history, as contained within Random Passage, is the default mode in Newfoundland’s historical imaginary. Countless reviews on sites like GoodReads praise its accuracy – to people writing in the 2010s, Newfoundland’s pre-Industrial past is just how Bernice Morgan portrayed it. For these reasons alone, its place in this series is secure – indeed, I could have opened with it (I almost did) – but there’s yet more to discuss.
The popularity and the long reach of Random Passage can’t be overlooked. It was a national best-seller, and, a decade after its release, it was made into a popular miniseries by the CBC and RTÉ (in Ireland). A scattered Newfoundland novel had gained national attention before this – Percy Janes’ House of Hate, for example – but there were two important differences about Random Passage: first, it crossed a critical threshold in popularity and, doing so, gained some international attention (helped by the TV series, no doubt), and, second, it explicitly set out to tell not just a Newfoundland story, but to tell the story of Newfoundland – to explain the origin and nature of the hardscrabble society that had, improbably, survived for generations with almost no support or encouragement on an isolated and inhospitable coast.
Cape Random, the fictional outport where Random Passage is mostly set, takes its name from Random Island and Cape Island, the settlements where Morgan’s father and mother came from, respectively. Cape Random serves as synecdoche for all of rural Newfoundland, and Random Passage is nothing less than an Aeneid of Newfoundland’s own – something I think Morgan must have intended, as she named one of the central characters “Lavinia” (who becomes Aeneas’s bride in the Aeneid). Morgan departs from Virgil, whose Lavinia, although a living representation of the Latin people, almost never expresses herself. Morgan uses her Lavinia as a mouthpiece, focalizing much of the narrative through her eyes and making the reader privy to excerpts from her journal at various points. Indeed, that is one of the points Random Passage seems keen to make: the work of founding and growing Newfoundland society and culture was as much the work of women as it was of men – maybe moreso. It’s Lavinia who founds the first school and teaches the children to read and write, and it’s ambitious Mary Bundle who learns how to better coax vegetables out of the ungenerous soil. More importantly, though, it’s Lavinia who becomes the chronicler of the community’s history, and, in the world of Random Passage, a culture is the account of its history.
But Random Passage is doing more than recovering the unwritten contributions of women to Newfoundland’s past. It’s an act of imaginative recovery in a more basic sense. Here is a summary of what prompted Morgan to write Random Passage:
“Morgan recounts her Newfoundland childhood experiences, noting that the production and dissemination of Newfoundland culture was almost nonexistent. Watching American films and reading English or Canadian literature while in school, she recalls that even in the 1960s the school literature book, Our Heritage, never even mentioned the word Newfoundland” (from the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage profile on Bernice Morgan)
So it makes sense that Newfoundland should be presented to us through the eyes and the words of a Lavinia rather than an Aeneas – Morgan is, with her novel, giving voice to the voiceless.
In settler societies, historical fiction – especially generational sagas – carry the weight of a young and illegitimate society’s desire for historical and ethical legitimacy. Multi-generational settler stories are narratives of emplacement, meant to assert and reassert a connection between colonists and colonized territory. However, this process is more complicated in Random Passage. The novel comes from the sense that Newfoundland, while irrefutably a colonial project, has also been colonized by Canada, its heritage literally written out of official accounts of the nation. Yet some authentic Newfoundland exists – persists – in an imagined past, before colonial contact with mainland North America – thus, for a text like Random Passage, telling the past becomes not only a colonizing act, as one might expect, but also an attempt to resist and undo colonialism.
Indeed, it’s stressed multiple times, in different ways, that Newfoundland is an illegitimate settlement . The novel’s Prologue is narrated by an elderly Beothuk woman who contemplates the recent arrival of the soulless and violent “Widduns” while her family catches seals off what will later become Cape Random (this scene presages Morgan’s third novel, 2007’s underappreciated Cloud of Bone, an intense meditation on the Beothuk genocide). But, unlike other European settlements in North America, Newfoundland settlements like Cape Random are also illegitimate in the European view. Even as the Thirteen Colonies are fighting their war of independence, it is only questionably legal to settle most of the Newfoundland coast. The unofficial society that exists there is essentially a cashless, lawless one, without any political, educational, or cultural institutions beyond those it creates for itself out of material locally available. The sight of an English sail on the horizon is a cause for anxiety, not for reassurance:
“I allow she’s an English vessel. I minds Uncle Ki Barbour tellin’ us how they used to come down this way burnin’ every house that had a chimney. They once hung two men up in Pond Island, the navy did . . . and you knows none of we crowd, except for Thomas, got any rights livin’ in this place!”
References to historical attempts by the British to discourage or erase settlement in Newfoundland echo – deliberately, I’d guess – the erasure of Newfoundland from the Canadian schoolbooks of Morgan’s past.
So, Random Passage is an unusual historical fiction that operates in ways unlike its mainland Canadian and American counterparts. I’d argue that, even beyond ‘explaining’ Newfoundland, it is a novel that wants to provide Newfoundlanders living in the present with revitalizing imaginative access to an overwritten/erased past that they are becoming increasingly unfamiliar with or ignorant of – to provide Newfoundland with a tribal memory. It serves a function opposite to the one I’ve ascribed to Come, Thou Tortoise – it creates a Newfoundland where a connection with a pre-Confederation past, with a culture and a way of life now vanished, is precisely what makes a Newfoundlander a Newfoundlander. It is a book about a long lineage of unlikely survivors, a book that intends to propagate that lineage through the imaginative reconnection of the present with the past. Thus both its setting and its characters have to serve as archetypes – Cape Random has to be any or every outport, and the cast of wretches who barely survive there have to serve as imagined ancestors for any Newfoundlander who encounters them.
A book so deeply engaged – by necessity – with archetypes could easily be trite, cliché, predictable. Like any cultural origin story, it could easily be pedantic or polemic – and I suspect it is put to those uses in some Newfoundland high school classrooms, where it is often assigned. Random Passage, though, rises above those qualities, due in no small part to Morgan’s abilities in creating characters and narratives, combined with the consciously metafictional qualities of the novel. The point of view shifts frequently; the novel is polyphonic, self-contradictory. The first half of the book is told primarily (though not exclusively) through one character, Lavinia, partly through the trick of free indirect discourse, partly through excerpts from her journal. The second part of the novel spans the same period of time and many of the same events, but this time it is entirely spoken in the first person, told by Thomas, the fish merchant’s agent (mentioned in the quote above as the only one who “got any rights livin’ in this place!”) with a shadowy past.
In this way, the plot, which is also more complex and engaging than a simple origin myth requires, can spin out its deceptions, its twists. Rather than following a conventional linear pathway, Morgan returns to the same scenes multiple times, giving different information and conflicting accounts, drawing attention, often explicitly, to the way that our knowledge of the past is always unreliable, always mediated by biased and partial reports. Characters mistake one another, misapprehend situations, misremember events, make bad decision based on bad information. If Random Passage is meant to undo the erasure of Newfoundland’s heritage, to give Newfoundland’s past – and thus Newfoundland identity – back to readers who have been deprived of it through such colonial erasure, then Morgan is also smart enough and ethical enough to deny any sense of solidity or certainty in that past. The past is only accessible in the telling of the past, and each telling changes it. The historical Newfoundland, the seat of Newfoundland identity in Random Passage, becomes “[a] place . . . forever reshaping itself . . . [Will it] vanish completely some day. . . ? No, it is the changing that saves it.”