Sometimes, we read a book that changes our whole concept of life. For me, that book is the Pulitzer-prize-winning novel, The Shipping News, written by E. Annie Proulx. Its hero (or anti-hero) is Quoyle, a lumbering mass of a man who never quite fit into the society of upstate New York where he was born. Even his body betrays him:
At sixteen he was buried under a casement of flesh. Head shaped like a Crenshaw, no neck, reddish hair ruched back. Features as bunched as kissed fingertips. Eyes the colour of plastic. The monstrous chin, a freakish shelf jutting out from the lower face.
(At this point, you’re probably asking yourself, “What the heck is a Crenshaw?” To save you the trouble, I’ve pre-googled it. A Crenshaw is a winter melon, with green-gold skin. There you have it: Quoyle was melon-headed.)
It is the jaw, however, that causes our poor anti-hero the most grief. He is forever trying to hide it behind his palm. He and we are amazed when he captures the hand of Petal, his promiscuous and damaged wife. Even at her most perverse, Petal seems far more “normal” than Quoyle. It is she who manoevers effortlessly through their environment, seizing with greedy fingers whatever she wants from life.
Quoyle might have remained trapped in this life forever, had not tragedy struck. At his aunt’s urging, he and his two young daughters accompany her to their ancestral home in Newfoundland. A former typesetter, Quoyle manages to land a job as a reporter at a small newspaper in one of the island’s outports.xxx
This may be my favourite part of the book. Proulx’s ordinary-yet-odd cast of characters can be glimpsed in any small-town newspaper in this country: I know, I was one of them. My own favourites are Benny Fudge and Adonis Collard, who write the food column:
The fish strip basket was supposed to include Dinner Roll, but instead we got Slice of Bread. The fish strips were very crisy and good. There is a choice of packet of lemon juice or Tartar Sauce. We both had the Tartar Sauce.”
I can almost hear the people in Quoyle’s past laughing behind their sleeves. Yet this is an environment that welcomed Quoyle without judgement or rancor. It is also the place that, ultimately, helps him heal.
But not right away. To his horror, the still-traumatized Quoyle inherits the car-wreck beat. There, he is forced to take graphic photos of fatal accidents caused by the island’s over-abundance of moose. His friend and coworker, Nutbeem, ever on the run from his past, is assigned the sexual abuse and incest stories. Billy Pretty, outwardly male but of uncertain gender from birth, must write the women’s page. Each man seems trapped in his own memories, forever doomed to recreate a murky family history.
So many of us are dealt a similar hand in life, enduring circumstances we would not have chosen for ourselves. But sometimes, just sometimes, we get the chance to be more than who we are. Quolye’s lifeline comes in the form of the Shipping News, originally intended as nothing more than a list of ships entering and leaving port. He enlarges it by writing a story about a boat, Hitler’s boat in fact. It is from this palpably evil artifact that Quoyle’s redemption springs.
As time goes on, we see Quoyle gaining in stature. He even proves himself worthy of a True Love. Billy Pretty tells us there are four women in every man’s life: the Maid in the Meadow, the Demon Lover (a clear reference to Petal), the Stouthearted Woman, and the Tall and Quiet Woman. All four come to Quoyle, though he is not wise enough to recognize them at first.
As Quoyle’s redemption proceeds, even his flesh changes. His giant chin no longer seems the freak of nature it was in New York. We discover that he comes from a long line of strong-chinned, Newfoundland men, a fact accepted as entirely normal by everyone in the village. The island’s hard climate and a winter spent wrestling with an ornery boat engine burn off the flab, leaving behind a large and powerful body.
In the end, Quoyle manages to redeem even his family name from its shameful past. He achieves this simply by being a good, quiet, well-meaning man. He also changes his daughters’ heritage and the future of his line. We predict that their destinies will be far different than those of their antecedents, simply because their father had the courage to embark on a boat to a place he was always meant to discover. Once there, he was able to seize the opportunities offered to him, small and scanty as they were.xxx
What do I take from The Shipping News? I have never read it without a feeling of hope. Sometimes, it takes a shock to wrench us out of our complacency; yet even then we don’t have to accept the hand we are dealt. At any point along the timeline of our lives, we can set a new course, hoist sails toward a new adventure, and win our place in the sun. May you find yours in these years of living backwards.
Susan Young de Biagi is a regular contributor to prdn.
“As a trained historian, my twin passions are writing and teaching. In addition to Cibou—my first novel—I have written or co-written three books of non-fiction, and authored a number of digital, educational products.“