By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, June 17, 2007
BAY OF SPIRITS
A Love Story
By Farley Mowat
Carroll & Graf. 360 pp. $25.95
In the summer of 1957, Farley Mowat was 36 years old. He had served with distinction in Europe in World War II, then returned to his native Canada, where he studied biology, married and had two sons. According to the biography in Wikipedia, "during a field trip to the Arctic, [he] became outraged at the plight of the Inuit people," which "led him to publish his first novel, People of the Deer," in 1952. It was the beginning of a very long, productive and distinguished writing career, one that has made him a celebrity in Canada and has brought much useful publicity to the humane and environmental causes in which he believes so deeply.
During the summer about which he writes in Bay of Spirits, he went to Newfoundland because he wanted to explore that island off Canada's easternmost coast. "Newfoundland is of the sea," he writes. "A mighty granite stopper thrust into the mouth of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, its coasts present more than five thousand miles of rocky headlands, bays, capes, and fiords to the sweep of the Atlantic. Everywhere hidden reefs, which are called, with dreadful explicitness, sunkers, wait to rip open the bellies of unwary vessels." Scattered along this coast were 38 "outports," tiny communities of "as few as a dozen inhabitants" or as many as a hundred, each "a little world of its own, living by and on the sea." Mowat wanted to explore these towns, meet their inhabitants, hear their stories.
He did all that and more. Much more. On the tiny island of St. Pierre he met Claire Angel Wheeler, 27 years old, a resident of Toronto who had studied at the Ontario College of Art and "longed to experience something of what lay beyond Toronto's confines. She also wanted to learn colloquial French, so when she heard about a summer school . . . being started in St. Pierre, she travelled east to enrol in its first session." Mowat immediately fell under her spell, and walked away from their first encounter with a feeling that "this might be the beginning of the happiest adventure of my life."
It wasn't long before he and Claire were in love, which is why the subtitle of this memoir is, simply, "A Love Story." By summer's end they were deep in a passionate affair and desperately wanted to stay together, but "I was a married man so she did not anticipate a long-term future with me, nor I with her." Back at home in Ontario, "I failed to screw up my courage sufficiently to tell my wife I wanted to leave her. My two small boys, Sandy and David, proved to be the mooring lines that held me and I could not muster the strength to break away." Claire "made no attempt to persuade me to leave my family for her," so "the two of us spent the winter in a kind of limbo, lightened by an occasional loving rendezvous."
But winter turned into summer, and once again Mowat and Claire met in Newfoundland. Returning to Ontario, Mowat finally faced the music and told his wife, but "Frances would not agree to an uncontested divorce, and in those times obtaining a contested one was a horrific ordeal entailing such unsavoury expedients as having oneself photographed committing adultery in a sleazy motel room." Instead he and Claire "concluded that the only solution for us was to live together common-law." In Canada at the time "two people living together without benefit of marriage were pretty generally regarded as being outside the social pale," but that's what they did, beginning a "marriage" that now has lasted nearly half a century.
They knew they wanted to live in Newfoundland, at least long enough for Mowat to do research about the place, but they didn't know where. They had Mowat's sailboat, Happy Adventure, but though they loved it deeply, it was hardly the same as a house. They especially wanted to find a house at Bay Despair, also known (less despairingly by far) as Bay of Spirits, "a bit like the fiord country of Norway, only without high mountains -- an enormous water hand with spread fingers thrusting deep into the rocky vitals of Newfoundland" -- but "felt it might be too difficult of access, especially while I was researching my history of the island and would need to get in and out quickly and often."
Then, in 1962 at a settlement called Messers, they found just what they were looking for: a "white-painted frame bungalow perched, somewhat precariously, I thought, on a bald granite dome commanding an unparalleled view of the outer islands and the rolling ocean beyond." The asking price was $4,500, "a give-away price for the snug little house with its large, airy kitchen; cosy parlour; and three small but adequate bedrooms, all on one floor," even with a bathroom, "something few outport homes possessed." They bought it and settled in, staying there off and on for several years. They made many treasured friendships and seem to have been treated utterly without prejudice, even though they not merely were living in sin but were outlanders in a place fiercely, proudly and literally insular.
The feelings that Mowat developed for the islanders were strong, but scarcely sentimental. He admired their fortitude, especially that of "most outport fishermen: a struggle to endure, not against the sea and the land but against the rapacity of merchants, large and small, upon whom the settlers depended for what they could not find or make for themselves; such things as flour, sugar, molasses, tea, fishing gear, guns and ammunition, oilskin coats and rubber boats." Time after time he and Claire were beneficiaries of their generosity, sometimes expressed in taciturn ways but always open and obviously heartfelt.
But the islanders were capable of savagery, the sort that often lurks inside people who live too close to nature and see it as something to be exploited. In three different passages, Mowat describes with passion and anger the bloody, indiscriminate and "demented" slaughter of creatures -- whales and sea lions -- that had the misfortune to wander into outport harbors and find themselves trapped. Of the first such incident, Mowat writes: "It was as berserk and gory a spectacle as any I have ever witnessed, more terrible than anything I saw even during my years as an infantryman at war. It was the ultimate Killer Animal at his demonic worst." After another, an utterly purposeless massacre of seals, Mowat developed passionate feelings about "this butchery" and eventually made several expeditions to explore it:
"I went on these bloody expeditions to record and to bear witness against a holocaust that was consuming as many as a million seals a year, a massacre committed with the full support of Canada's federal government and of the legislatures of the several Atlantic provinces, a slaughter of wild creatures on an almost inconceivable scale actively or implicitly sanctioned by most of the Canadian media and by all-too-many citizens of my country.
"An atrocity that is being continued to this day, I hold it to be a heinous crime against life on earth."
Surely his revulsion at this savagery was one reason why Mowat and Claire eventually moved away from Newfoundland. Another doubtless was that his writing commitments began to take him to many places around Canada and the world as his reputation grew, along with his determination to speak out against man's destruction of the environment and his fellow creatures. But Newfoundland had changed by the late 1960s, and it no longer was the simple (if occasionally violent) place he had come to love. Automobiles arrived, and sewage, and new schools "staffed by teachers skilled at denigrating the old ways and arousing in the students a hunger for the golden future promised by the industrial millennium."
It was time to leave, though with far more regret than relief. If this deeply felt book, written in the middle of Mowat's ninth decade, is a love song to his life's companion, it is also a love song to a time and place in which he found the happiness he sought. All in all, a lovely book. ·
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.