It is a Monday, my wash is on the line hanging between the fishing shed and the outhouse. From my kitchen windows I look out to the ocean and into the harbour. This was once a harbour where hundreds of people lived, the shore lined with fishing stages so close together the children ran from one to the other across the whole cove. Now it is a place where only six families live year round, the rest of us coming from away, or from nearby towns back to the houses where their parents once lived.
There are many, many places like this in Newfoundland. And there are just as many like Little Running and Big Running, where Emma Hooper has set her novel Our Homesick Songs. Once both were busy communities where families supported themselves by fishing and related work. In the 1970s the few houses still occupied in Little Running were floated around the shore to Big Running.
People adjusted – not so very far from home. But by the 1990s it was clear that even the once busy harbour, and the fishery, was no longer able to support those who remained. The novel then moves seamlessly from 1969 to 1993, as we come to know the orphaned Murphy sisters, especially Martha, and the man she will marry, Aidan Connor, and then their children Finn who is 11, and Cora 15 years old. They live now in Big Running, and will be the last to remain after all of their neighbours leave, family by family, to find work elsewhere, many in Alberta.
Martha and Aidan know they must find work in the west as well, but they chose to do it alone, one going for several weeks, and the other staying home, and then the reverse. This means the children are always with one parent and still in the home they all love so much. What is not so good is that Aidan and Martha are not together, and without any other children in Big Running there is no longer a school. They are living in what has become a ghost town.
Finn and Cora each find different ways of coping with their situation – as do their parents. When the notice comes to advise the remaining residents that they must leave each member of this family has their own idea of how to prevent this from happening. And they each place themselves, and those they love in potentially dangerous situations.
I was immediately drawn into this story, with characters who felt very real, and a time and place into which I was emotionally drawn. This is a novel that is both absolutely straight forward and one that is sometimes slightly too “quirky” for my liking. About three quarters the way through I was becoming impatient with some of the less than believable events, but by then I was so committed to the characters that I had to keep with it. And, it is a book that became better and better as the story developed. I felt fear for the children, both of them in situations where they could so easily come to harm or perished. The demise of a once vibrant community becoming emptier and emptier was heartbreaking, as were the struggles of the parents trying to do the right thing for themselves and their children.
Young Finn is taught to play the accordion by Mrs. Callaghan, the only remaining resident in Little Running. He rows across to her home and she tells him stories, about the sailors and explorers from far off places who once sailed to Newfoundland, and some who stayed. It is Mrs. Callaghan who explains, “the only way, the best way, for them to remember home was through singing, through the songs and tunes they knew from home. When they were homesick, when they needed to remember where they were from, they could sing to see, to remember.” Singing and music is a big part of life in Newfoundland, the heritage from those long ago sailors and settlers from Ireland, and the British Isles, France, Spain and Portugal - it is in the blood here – and in the blood of those who have had to leave.
Emma Hooper is not only a novelist but also a musician, a Canadian living in Ireland. It may have been the music that drew her to this place, but time spent in Newfoundland led to write her most recent, and quite wonderful novel, Our Homesick Songs.