Rare Birds, by Edward Riche

This is Part 5 in my ongoing “Primer on the Newfoundland Novel” series. For links to parts 1-4, check the bottom of the post.

“I did well on tips. Funny how Newfoundlanders are with money. They sense the end is nigh, I guess.”

Edward Riche’s first novel Rare Birds emerged in 1997, at the midpoint of a particularly apocalyptic era in Newfoundland. This was after the cod moratorium but before the oil boom – a period when the province’s population shrank by more than 10% in less than ten years, when national newspapers callously told Newfoundlanders to “move where the work is” – last one off the island make sure to turn off the lights and lock the door. 1997 was an odd year,though – at perhaps the peak of this pessimism, it was also a year of official celebration, the supposed 500th anniversary of Newfoundland’s European “discovery.” No shortage of government money was poured into pagentry and pomp (the Queen went to Bonavista to greet a replica of John Cabot’s ship as it sailed into harbour, even). However, even as the mere existence of Newfoundland was celebrated, it still seemed doomed, fundamentally ill-fated:

“Nature was reclaiming Newfoundland in the name of the Beothuks and the great auk. The wharfs would wash away, the softball diamonds would become bogs and the phone booth would sink into the damp earth. Newfoundland resisted civilization. The ancient Dorset peoples had failed. The Point Revenge Indians had failed. The Norse had failed. The Basques had failed. And now the British Empire and its Canadian water boys were failing. The island belonged to the black bears and caribou and lynx and crows. And they would soon have it back.”

Something of this atmosphere, this sense of an unsustainable largesse-in-despair, of a fraudulent celebration that can’t help but ring hollow, characterizes Rare Birds, an intelligent but unpretentious plot-driven comedy. It’s a novel that feels, to me, something like a half-rueful, half-wild last laugh, a Swiftian smirk shared by the few who see and comprehend the unravelling situation but are powerless to alter a thing as the island itself sinks under its own weight into the Slough of Despond – hurried to its inevitable fate, perhaps, by the hand of its unloving colonial masters (see above re: Britain and Canada), but doomed, in truth, by its unlucky and maladaptive nature.

Rare Birds by Edward Riche

Rare Birds by Edward Riche

The protagonist of Rare Birds is Dave. Dave is a foodie suffering what might be a mid-life crisis. He has quit his job, moved home to Newfoundland, and emptied his bank accounts in order to open a fine dining restaurant in a fishing village just outside St. John’s, in the ‘”brown bag belt” – something that might make sense in 2010s Newfoundland, flush with oil money, but a quixotic if not insane move in the economically moribund 1990s. Dave’s restaurant has a fittingly ill-favoured name: The Auk, a bird driven into extinction by the insatiable bloodlust of Newfoundlanders, who slaughtered them into oblivion. Dave has spared no expense: the restaurant has been lavishly renovated, and the wine cellar is full of expensive vintages.

The novel opens several months after the restaurant does, and both the business and its proprietor are floundering; there are no customers and Dave’s wife has abandoned the rapidly worsening situation, taking a job with a conservative think-tank in Washington, DC; bankruptcy and divorce both beckon. The novel’s plot takes off when Dave’s eccentric neighbour (and perhaps his only real friend), Phonse, hits on a scheme to bring customers to The Auk’s door: fake a rare bird sighting, a colourful and distinctive bird last seen perhaps twenty years ago (the sighting is debated), now thought definitely extinct. Such a report will bringing hopeful (and hungry) bird watchers out of the city (or, indeed, from around the globe) to the remote locale, the very doorstep of Dave’s restaurant, The Auk. And as The Auk is the only place to eat anywhere nearby, he will have captive customers. The refined palates of the bird-watching set will be impressed by the improbable existence of fine dining in rural Newfoundland; word will get ’round, and Dave and The Auk will both be saved. The scheme works, but almost immediately entropy sets to work complicating the hoax. Sexual frustration, industrial espionage, menacing locals, bumbling Canadian government officials, and a lot of cocaine make maintaining this fraudulent success all the more difficult, and things begin to spin out of control.

Phonse, the engineer and prime mover of the situation, is many things: an inventor, a schemer, an autodidact, a fatalist, a paranoiac (justifiably, it turns out), a dynamo of energy with a relentless and thoroughly open mind. He’s probably the novel’s most interesting character, and he’s also pure Bayman – one of the two most basic tribal distinctions that exist in Newfoundland (the other being Townie – about which more later). We are introduced to Phonse through Dave’s memory of him euthanizing an adolescent humpback whale that had become trapped in sea ice and was doomed to be slowly and cruelly crushed to death. This extreme act of difficult kindness, marginal to if not outside of propriety, sums up Phonse perfectly. Phonse either sees the situation clearly or educates himself until he can do so, and then he simply, without ceremony or posturing, does the thing that needs doing; to lesser minds, this may make him appear eccentric if no insane.

Phonse is a Bayman. Townies are from St.John’s. Baymen are from the countless rural communities. In the Townie mind, Baymen are supposed to be uneducated, unworldly, simple, small-minded, perhaps even uncivilized. Phonse is none of those things, but he lives in exile from his outport community, Push Cove, because many of the people there precisely fit this stereotype. By including both the stereotype and its opposition, though, Riche attacks from both sides both offensive stereotypes of and romantic notions about Newfoundland.

“It was the hollow myth of Newfoundland again. The people were all supposed to be so sweet and colourful but never dangerous, the good poor. This was Canada’s Happy Province. I’ll introduce you to some car cannibals, thought Dave. They’d club you like a seal pup and sell your organs for the price of a dozen beer.”

And what about the Townies? If Phonse is a Bayman, Dave is a Townie; if Townies have a dim view of Baymen that is, nonetheless, often accurate, Baymen return the favour, likewise with a degree of accuracy:

“The peculiar little city gripping the steep sides of a small harbour seems magical on first sight. Its streets are a senseless maze, the map of a drunk’s progress. Its wooden row houses are painted the most audacious colours to combat the dreary agency of persistent fog and drizzle. The people, the Townies, seem friendly, generous with colourful opinions, spoken with a distinct mongrel brogue of Irish and English influence. They are surprisingly worldly. For the people of the many outports along the coast of Newfoundland, St. John’s was Sin City, impossibly cosmopolitan and jaded for such a small place. The charms of St. John’s were undeniable, irresistable. No wonder it had suckered so many souls. The people that really lived in St. John’s, the ones who hadn’t gone away too long or hadn’t fallen under its spell during a brief visit, the real Townies, knew better . . . . They knew that St. John’s was, beneath the pink and powder blue paint, the political capital of a four-hundred year legacy of misery and deprivation, a desperate colonial outpost of missed opportunities. Dave’s town.”

Rare Birds is worth reading for its wit and its plot; it’s a funny, briskly paced, readable book; you can get through it in a day. In addition to these qualities, passages such as those I’ve quoted here make it a notable and useful introduction to Newfoundland. It’s a novel that’s deeply engaged with the project of theorizing the place, thinking about its nature, its past and its future. Riche has absolutely no romanticism for Newfoundland, and, judging from Rare Birds and his other writings, he relishes opportunities to dismantle romantic myths about the place. But this isn’t to say he doesn’t love Newfoundland as well. Rare Birds demonstrates a wealth of knowledge about the place, its history and its people, the kind of knowledge few Newfoundlanders possess (at one point, Dave bitterly thinks that the provincial slogan should be changed from “The Happy Province” to “I Forgets” – a nice riff on / inversion of the Quebecois Je me souviens). Rare Birds also demonstrates a lot of deep thought about why Newfoundland is such a “tragic case,”  a “battered and bewildered nation, the sport of historic misfortune,” and it does all this through the medium of a fast-paced plot-driven satire.

Previous posts in this series: Lisa Moore’s Alligator, Wayne Johnston’s Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Michael Crummey’s Galore, and Jessica Grant’s Come, Thou Tortoise.

July 1

This is adapted from something I wrote on facebook seven (!!!) years ago. 

July 1 is usually a day of conflicted feelings and conflicted identity for me. July 1 is Canada Day, but it’s also Memorial Day in Newfoundland, a day to remember Newfoundland’s war dead in general, World War I in particular, and the slaughter of Beaumont Hamel in 1916 most specifically. This is complicated not just because of the disharmonious combination of emotions — celebration and commemoration — but because the Newfoundlanders who died in the First World War were not Canadians. They were not fighting for Canada. When the media covers Memorial Day, this fact is often left out, or only hinted at. But I think it’s at the heart of why July 1 is such a strange and difficult day for me.

Most of the time I have a pretty reasonable internal compromise regarding my sense of national identity. I’m an nth-generation Newfoundlander who also happens to be a first-generation Canadian. Because of Newfoundland’s odd political history, I’m the first person in my direct family line to be born in Canada, even though my family has lived in Newfoundland for at least 200 years before my birth. My parents did not come to Canada as children; Canada came to them.

As an uncritical youngster, I was full of overwhelming but mostly formless Canadian pride. I chalk this up to successful federalist propaganda, itself a response to the surge in Québec separatism in the 80s and 90s. There was a frantic edge to the flag-waving of the early 90’s, as if Canada was Tinkerbell and this was the bit at the end of Peter Pan where we all have to applaud to save her life.

Newfoundland patriotism? The attitude I received during childhood was that Newfoundland meant backwards, wrong, ignorant, poor — something to be ashamed of. Though it was never put so bluntly, the message was loud and clear: If I wanted to be anything more than the stereotype of the ignorant and lazy welfare bum, I would have to excise Newfoundland from my identity and become, essentially, exactly the same as people from the Canadian heartland. Good kids didn’t talk ‘like that’ (with a Newfoundland accent). Good kids loved Canada. Good kids aspired to a particular WASP-y Southern Ontario ideal which, we understood, was Canada. I was a good kid.

As I grew older, I became curious about my own place and my own people, so incredibly different from that Canadian ideal. I felt alienated from my own culture and I wanted to reverse that. I didn’t have much by the way of dialect, but I tried to hold on to what had survived. In the last year of my undergraduate degree, I started to study Newfoundland history and learned that we had once been a country  — well, mostly. For a while, at least, we had the same legal status within the British Empire that Canada had. I learned how Newfoundland once had passports, Prime Ministers, currency, stamps, and so on. These were facts that, incredibly, had been omitted from all my public schooling. It was as if, when we joined Canada, everything from before that date was erased and replaced by Canadian history. I knew who Sir John A. Macdonald was, but I had never heard of Sir Robert Bond. I knew who Louis Riel was, but not William Coaker.

This isn’t to say joining Canada was a bad thing, on the balance. The quality of life in Newfoundland took an enormous leap forward during our first twenty years as part of Canada. The fact that I am as educated and as healthy as I am is largely due to the advantages I have had as a Canadian. It would be ungracious to pretend otherwise. It is, literally, a privilege to be born in Canada.

If Newfoundland had gone it alone, we might have been an incredibly prosperous small nation, with all of our resource revenue for ourselves, or we might be a destitute, illiterate, malnourished micronation that never fully escaped the 19th century. Or we might be somewhere between the two. Or we might be something else, something I haven’t considered or imagined. It’s impossible to say what might have been.

Harold Horwood, a controversial Newfoundland writer most prominent in the 1960s and 70s, had an interesting theory. Horwood’s idea runs like this: it took the peril of cultural destruction that came with our joining Canada to make Newfoundlanders aware of ourselves as a unique culture. The perceived erosion of our culture by Canadian cultural imperialism is what prompted cultural nationalism in 1970s Newfoundland, just as American cultural imperialism prompted Canadian cultural nationalism during the same period.

But cultural nationalism isn’t satisfying to me. It’s reactive. It shuts down diversity and possibility.

Today is Canada Day. On July 1 1867, Canada was formed. Newfoundland didn’t show up to the party until 82 years later, on April 1 — rather, 11:59 pm March 31, in consideration of what else April 1 is.

Today is also Memorial Day in Newfoundland. On July 1, 1916, the Battle of Beaumont Hamel nearly wiped out the Newfoundland Regiment, later called the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, the only regiment to be awarded the appellation ‘royal’ during the course of World War I.

A shell explodes at Beaumont Hamel, July 1, 1916. Source:  http://www.therooms.ca/regiment/part2_the_battle_of_the_somme_part1.asp

A shell explodes at Beaumont Hamel, July 1, 1916. Source: http://www.therooms.ca/regiment/

More than 800 Newfoundlanders were sent over the top that morning; the next morning, only 110 were alive, and only 68 of them were able to answer roll call. For a nation of barely 250,000, this was a huge one-day loss. To put it in proportion, it would be like 89,000 young Canadians being killed in a single hour of senseless carnage, today. But July 1 was merely the bloodiest day of a very bloody war. When even a single human death is an inconceivable thing, it feels brutal to deal in numbers of these magnitude. While casualty rates for Newfoundlanders were comparable to rates for Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders, Newfoundland’s tiny population magnified the social cost. Joan Sullivan’s non-fiction book In the Field is an account of how delicate the social ecosystem of a small Newfoundland outport can be; how the death of just a few young men — or even a single one, in the case Sullivan investigates — can disrupt a fragile community’s chain of existence, leading to its eventual destruction. In World War I, Newfoundland lost a significant part of a generation of political leaders, thinkers, businessmen, writers, inventors, innovators. Due to the tiny size of the then-country’s population, these were often irreplaceable losses.

Newfoundland also went deeply into debt to finance its efforts in World War I, and the fact that this debt was never forgiven has often been held up as one reason why the Dominion suffered an economic collapse in the early 1930s, surrendering its self-rule to the very British government it had gone so deeply into debt to defend — something that sticks in the craw of many Newfoundland nationalists still.

unveiling national war memorial, st john's

Unveiling of the National War Memorial in St. John’s, July 1, 1924. Source: http://www.heritage.nf.ca/greatwar/

So, since World War I, July 1 has been a day of great mourning and deep significance in Newfoundland, entirely divorced from the Canada Day celebrations in what, until 1949, was the next country over.

But now we are Canadians, too. We have been for more than sixty years. I am a Canadian as well as a Newfoundlander, and usually I can be both without too much trouble. But July 1, for the reasons given above, is a day when that compromise feels uncomfortable.

I find inappropriate many of the patriotic displays associated with Canada Day. July 1 sees like a day when we are encouraged to rally around cliché, natural symbols and animals that most Canadians (some of the most urbanized people on the globe) have little knowledge of, and bits of culture filched, expropriated, appropriate from the land’s original inhabitants, who continue to be subject to abuse and discrimination, and whose land is still under illegal occupation.

So how can one celebrate Canada Day? To be Canadian is to be local. Canada is not a monolith. Canadians are not one people. Canada is not two solitudes; we are not one English people and one French people. Canadians come from anywhere and everywhere. Canada is not even a nation, in some senses of the word. It has always been a composite, comprised of countless disparate fragments. Any attempt to create a united identity for Canada that moves away from that fact is immediately an ethical failure.

I am not patriotic. Canada has a violent, bloody history that often gets forgotten. It is an ongoing colonial project and its body count is still rising. However, it is also good to consider the positive aspects of this improbable, imperfect political entity. It is (usually, mostly) a society of tolerance in a world that is mostly cruel and unwelcoming. My current member of the provincial parliament, here in Toronto, demonstrated something rare this morning: a patriotic tweet from a politician that didn’t feel like empty pandering. He wrote:

Canada Day. A celebration of our diverse folks, ideas & geography! Our nation of people from every corner of the Earth! Pluralism & hope. – Glen Murray, Toronto Centre MPP

So, that brings me back to my childhood, watching the 1995 Québec referendum. Is Québec a nation? Of course. So is Newfoundland. So are the Cree. So are the Métis. So are the Acadians. So are the Inuit. So is WASP-y Southern Ontario. These nations have different levels of recognition, different levels of prestige, sometimes wield power against one another. But the watchwords are “pluralism and hope,” and something so difficult as an effective pluralism won’t ever be achieved without hope and optimism. We are countless nations within a political compromise, pursuing a common good as best we can. Canada is that compromise. I think the most Canadian thing a person can do is to respect that Canada is not a single nation, is far more than two solitudes. July 1 is a day to honour differences and the framework that allows difference to exist.

So, perhaps ironically, the best way I can celebrate Canada Day is by honouring Memorial Day instead. Which is, as always, what I will end up doing.