Latitudes of Melt by Joan Clark
Do you sometimes think of a novel you remember reading a decade ago, or more, but have now mostly forgotten? I do, and quite often and over the past couple of years I’ve taken time out from reading the new books to re-read some of the old ones.
After reading Joan Clark’s new novel The Birthday Lunch I decided to re-read one of her earlier books Latitudes of Melt, published in 2000. All I could really remember of that novel is that a baby girl is found on an ice floe off the coast of Newfoundland – and I thought perhaps the child was albino – the rest was gone from me, lost in the increasingly dense mists of time.
Latitudes of Melt does begin with a fisherman, Francis St. Croix, out in the Atlantic where he finds a child – on an ice floe “a bergy bit” - well protected from the elements, floating in a basket, on a chair. He returns home to Drook, an outport community not far from Trepassy, on the Avalon’s south coast, where his wife Merla waits with their sons. They name the baby Aurora for the dawn, and after unsuccessfully advertising her rescue – knowing the Titanic has recently sunk nearby at Cape Race – they raise the child as their own. Aurora does have “pure white hair” and “fairy eyes” one blue and one brown.
What follows is the story of Aurora’s life, beginning with her childhood days in Drook. Life is harsh, there are tragedies on the sea, but there is also happiness and love. From her home Aurora watches icebergs drift through the latitudes of melt on their journey south from Greenland.
It won’t spoil the story for you for me to reveal that Aurora marries and has children. We read about the years that follow, her love for her husband and her children, then the years on her own as a widow. As Aurora and her children age the world changes. Newfoundland especially changes dramatically over the century between Aurora’s birth and her death. Latitudes of Melt portrays a vivid portrait of an outport community on the south coast of the Avalon Peninsula from the last century to the present time.
Aurora’s children eventually decide to make an effort to discover their mother’s heritage. Was she or was she not a survivor of the Titanic? If she was, who were her parents and why was she never claimed by anyone? It is a journey into the past, and into the lives of a young couple in England and their fateful decision to leave – or not - for a better life in New York.
I often think that if an author writes only one great book that is enough no matter how many they may publish, For me Latitudes of Melt is Joan Clark’s great book – and I am pleased that it is still in print for us to read – or re-read.