A granddaughter mixes local lore and family history in the story of her mother’s family in Newfoundland, where sudden death is usual.
Newfoundland was an independent British colony until it joined Canada in 1949, a step not universally welcomed, for Newfoundlanders are a proud people, stoically enduring a harsh climate, dangerous work, and frequent poverty. Loyal to Britain, they suffered enormous casualties in WWI, but, as Downton notes, “dying in the war was noble. Dying at sea was not; it was expected, common, a way of life.” Like their fellow islanders, her own family experienced losses at sea and on land as uncles drowned, infant cousins died from diptheria, other relatives from tuberculosis—which also afflicted but didn’t kill her grandfather, though his children devoutly wished it had. Grandmother Ethel was a cultured, college-educated schoolteacher who married Sidney Wiseman, the youngest son of a wealthy fishing family. The family believed Ethel had really loved Sidney’s elder brother, Good, who was drowned at sea, and that she’d merely settled for Sidney, though Ethel insisted she loved him. Sidney was a monster, and the memoir—which moves back and forth in time as if the narrator were telling it to a family gathering, where long-forgotten memories often interrupt—suggests that he may have been mentally unstable. Whatever the cause, he treated his wife and six children with chilling cruelty: he locked a son in his room for an entire summer; deliberately, he once nearly drowned the writer’s mother; and on a stormy winter’s night he locked her outside in the snow. Ethel was frequently beaten, once so badly she had to have a kidney removed. Downton relates how the children adored their mother, who would never speak ill of their father, but escaped as soon as they could from a hellish father.
More descriptive than analytical, but a memorable portrait of a family fiercely loyal and loving to all but their unspeakable father.