On the Road with Annie Proulx
What is it about Newfoundland? Anyone who goes there for any length of time falls in love. With the people, the music, the landscape. For those of us who live on Georgian Bay with long views over water Newfoundland gives us that and more.
On my first trip to Newfoundland I flew into Gander and flew home from Deer Lake. The choice made to travel only in the north and west, up to Twillingate, on to Cape Onion and finally to Gros Morne all early in the spring – buying mittens and wearing every layer of clothing we had with us. It was all magnificent, the people, the food, the landscape – we vowed to return but did not do so until last year.
On that earlier trip we had already read The Bird Artist by Norman Howard, The Outport People by Claire Mowat, and The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. At that time Annie Proulx owned a house on the shore near Gunners Cove. She had camped and stayed in Bed & breakfast homes for several years, falling in love with the Newfoundland place names, before buying one house which she restored, and then another.
The Shipping News, published in 1993 when Proulx was 58 years old, became a huge bestseller, and won Annie Proulx the Pulitzer Prize. We sold hundreds of copies in Parry Sound – along with dozens of copies of the Ashley Book of Knots, and the book became the inspiration for a hit movie. But Annie Proulx did not endear herself to Newfoundlanders. She used their language and their culture as her own, and no matter how good this book is – and I believe it is one of the very best – she was not forgiven for what is called “cultural appropriation”. She restored two homes in Gunners Cove and lived there for a time but it seems she became less than welcome after the publication of The Shipping News. Selling her home In Newfoundland she went on to build a home in Wyoming, a ranch house on a remote 640 acres, writing her book Bird Cloud about the experience. More recently she had re-located to Seattle.
Heading across the American prairies on a road trip this spring I took along Close Range, a collection of Annie Proulx’s Wyoming Stories. This collection is a rougher tougher book than The Shipping News, but with the same delicious use of language. Annie Proulx must be like a sponge when she listens to the people she writes about.
“You are a knowledgeable girl,” he said, “and a damn good-lookin one, though upholstered. Care for a beer?” and you get it – the whole picture in so few perfect words.
These are stories peopled with women who read the newspaper lonely hearts ads, but know “the trouble that comes with drinking men and hair-trigger tempers.” Others are women who are as tough, or more, than the men - how can you not be seduced by the words “What the old girl didn’t know about stock could be written on a cigarette paper with room left over for bible verses”.
The thread connecting all of Annie Proulx’s writing is the landscape and the connection her characters have to that landscape. The remoteness of Newfoundland, and Wyoming, the long view over water and prairie, and how that geography is home to those who live there, all so perfectly captured by an exceptional writer.