Note: This novel was WINNER of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1994.
“The editorial page played streams of invective across the provincial political scene like a fire hose. Harangues, pitted with epithets. Gammy Bird was a hard bite. Looked life right in its shifty, bloodshot eye. A tough little paper. Gave Quoyle an uneasy feeling, the feeling of standing on a playground watching others play games whose rules he didn’t know.”
It’s always fun to reread a novel that was a favorite fifteen years ago and discover that it’s just as much fun the second time around. Winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1994, The Shipping News is set primarily in Newfoundland, the ancestral home of Quoyle, a widower from New York, and his aunt, Agnis Hamm, who return to Newfoundland with Quoyle’s two young daughters to try to create new lives. Quoyle, with minimal experience as a newspaper man in New York, gets a job at the local newspaper, the Gammy Bird, at Killick Claw, recording the weekly shipping news, doing features on visiting ships, and covering local car wrecks. Agnis continues her business of upholstering ship and yacht interiors, and Quoyle’s little girls settle into school and daycare.
As Quoyle and Agnis become friends with their fiercely independent and often quirky neighbors, their own pasts gradually unfold for the reader, and as they face the stark challenges of their new lives in wintery Newfoundland, they begin to understand more fully who they are and to recognize what is important in their lives. As Quoyle, who is still coming to terms with the death of his flagrantly unfaithful wife, Petal Bear, gains respect from his colleagues for his work at the paper and from his neighbors for his strength of character, he also begins to gain some self-respect. Agnis’s departure from Newfoundland many years ago was the result of a terrible trauma, and upon her return she finds unique ways to put some of that trauma to rest.
Life in Killick Claw is often bleak, and its population must deal with violent storms, winters lasting six months, few connections to the outside world, and sudden death at sea, all of which Proulx describes in vivid and moving passages. But survival in this world also inspires kinship among its residents and a kind of dark-humored resignation which is even more vividly depicted. All of Proulx’s characters wrest grim humor from life’s tragedies, buoying their spirits (and those of the reader) as they soldier on, refusing to engage in self-pity, no matter their difficulties. As irony piles upon irony, their resilience shines through, making this novel both a story of harsh reality and one of inspiring strength.
Photos: The author’s photo appears on http://online.wsj.com
This gorgeous photo of Killick Claw, by Kenwas, shows an Arctic seal family in the foreground: http://www.wincustomize.com