Bay of Spirits by Farley Mowat
Another great story from a master story-teller, this one subtitled "A Love Story". It's the story of his first meeting with a beautiful woman named Claire and how their feelings for each other developed, but it is another love story too, of his years living in and exploring the outports of Newfoundland. His appreciation for the people, waters and wildlife of Newfoundland bring this story to vivid life.
Speaking of pictures, Bay of Spirits contains some wonderful shots showing a way of life that is mostly gone now. There are beautiful harbours with square wooden houses sitting precariously on the surrounding rock, fishing boats and wharves that look like they've been there forever, whales, dogs and people. It's the people that got to me, the faces, weathered and lined and real; amazing people who built lives out of little more than rock and water and were satisfied with what they had.
There are so many stories in this book: names, places and history, a wealth of information and experience that brings the reader so close to being there you can almost smell it. The hospitable nature of the people and communities all along the Newfoundland coast took the authour into the houses and personal lives of families who were willing and eager to share what they had. Over countless meals of fish and bread, boiled dinners, cups of tea and glasses of rum, people's stories were told and friendships formed. These are priceless glimpses into what it means to be a Newfoundlander and though I was born and raised in another east coast province, the stories gave me a very satisfying sense of place and roots.
There were aspects of the book I didn't find as interesting as the people stories; I learned far more than I ever wanted to know about boats and fishing. I couldn't even begin to sort out the various watercraft mentioned: schooners, skiffs, ships, whalers, motor launchers, herring seiners, steamers, smacks, longliners, longboats, motor boats, destroyers, draggers, dinghies and dories. And as confusing as it got trying to figure out these things they were putting in the water, some of what they were taking out of the water also gave me pause: cod, haddock, herring, lobster, dogfish, wolf fish, lumpfish, sculpins, redfish, squid, flatfish, minnows, blue mussels, horse mussels, moon snails, rock crab and scarlet mud worms. Eww.
Several stories highlight Mowat's well known concern for animals of all varieties. On a storm-tossed ship he finds a dog left caged and unattended on deck, making sure the dog is fed and finding a safer place for him to ride out the storm. When whales are stranded in a harbour and the local people make sport of slaughtering them, he is moved to tears. In another incident, the community gathers and gleefully fires bullets into a stranded whale, stopping only when they run out of ammunition. Mowat is stunned and horrified: "It was beyond me even to imagine the mentality of men who would amuse themselves filling such a majestic creature full of bullets."
As the subtitle indicates, this is also the love story of Farley Mowat and Claire Wheeler. This beautiful girl steps onto his boat and with one smile, in his own words, "I was lost". He writes about making love on a deserted beach and romantic nights aboard his boat. It's a sweet love story.....until he reveals that he is a married man with two small sons. In a world where this happens every day it's not so shocking I guess, but it is a little bit shocking (isn't it?) that he doesn't mention having any qualms about it. He doesn't try to fight his feelings for Claire, but, pardon the pun, jumps right in. As he tells the story of their developing romance it feels as though we are meant to celebrate with him this finding of the love of his life. The only time he expresses any concern about his family is when it's time to go home and tell them he's leaving them for someone else.
Normally, of course, this would be none of my business. But here's the thing. A writer has to give his readers a reason to believe what he's telling them. What he reveals about himself helps you decide if you should trust the theories, philosophies and stories he's asking you to accept. Here, he's asking us to accept that he has a deep compassion for wildlife while he shows very little compassion for his own family. His apparent lack of feeling for his wife and children, his children for pete's sake, leaves the reader with the uncomfortable suspicion that he may not be as compassionate as he would have you believe. I'm not saying he had no compassion for his family, but he has chosen to express none here and that's all a reader has from which to form conclusions.
I love his writing style and admire his amazing skill as a story-teller, and I do recommend the book. But I need to be able to trust that true stories are true and I've got questions now, so I guess that leaves me not quite as firm a fan as I was before this book.