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Icebergs by Rebecca Johns

Icebergs by Rebecca Johns Several years ago while browsing in The Strand in New York City I came across a book titled Icebergs by Rebecca Johns – picked it up because of the cover – a sort of ghostly image of a Second World War style airplane coming in low over a barn surrounded by harvested fields – yes, you can judge some books by the cover. The description was appealing – Newfoundland, World War II, romantic love, deceit, death, survival – sounded good to me.

However, because I like to read books I can review, when I discovered that this book is out of print I put it aside until recently when I was looking for Newfoundland related books to read on a trip to The Rock. Published in 2006 this title is unavailable except for the few copies I was recently able to order that I can offer to my customers.

Icebergs begins as a plane crashes on the Labrador coast – two men in the freezing cold, the rest of the crew dead. The survivors talk and attempt to help each other stay alive in spite of their injuries and the freezing cold. We learn their individual stories – their pasts, the people they love and what they want to stay alive to come home to.

We move forward into the post war years, with those who returned from the war as they adjust to living again with wives and children – and the families whose fathers and husbands did not return are adjusting as well. Then the next generation – the children of these men as they enter adulthood – in the United States the boys are just the right age to fight in Viet Nam. At this transition I was, at first, reluctant to leave those earlier Second World War years, but found myself just as captivated by these new characters, their children. We do return to the earlier characters as the novel progresses. When we reach the present time – two generations removed from the Second World War, we have the adult grandchildren of the men we first met – and the wives, the grandmothers, now elderly women.

The characters in this novel are mostly people born in Canada who went to the United States for employment opportunities, the novel, and the characters, travel physically and emotionally between the two countries.

Rebecca Johns is able to write in the voice of an elderly man, a teenager bent on self-destruction, a woman in love with such accuracy of detail. There were so many times as I read that I wondered, “who is this writer”, and “how can someone so young write this”. I occasionally contact an author with my questions, and when I sent Rebecca Johns an email from Newfoundland she answered immediately.

“My connection to Newfoundland was that my grandfather was stationed at Gander during the war and survived a crash very like the one in the book (except not as many people died, thank goodness!) in 1944 outside of Goose Bay. I remembered his stories about it and about my grandmother at home waiting for news of him, and while I was in graduate school in Iowa I wrote a short story about a young woman waiting for news of her husband who'd gone down in such a crash. It seemed natural to add the husband's perspective and to show the things that happened to them afterward. I couldn't stop writing until I had their stories fully told to the ends of their lives.”

I did some research in Newfoundland while I was writing the book, including a trip to Gander and to the coast, and even down to St. John's, where my mother and I went on a whale-watching tour. It's beautiful country, and I don't know if I ever would have had a reason to go there without the book, so I'm glad I wrote it for that alone.

The middle section of the book went through a number of changes as I was writing, but it too was inspired by my dad's story as a Vietnam vet born in Canada who emigrated to the US as a small child. When so many young men were trying to escape over the border, my father volunteered for the service and did one of the worst tours imaginable. The connections between the two stories always seemed mysterious to me, and I wanted to have a chance to explore them.

In a strange and delightful footnote, the book introduced me to the man who saved my grandfather's life in 1944 when he dug him out of that snowbank. We've been in touch several times by phone and letter. The plane itself, which lay in the woods in Labrador all these years, is in the process of being restored (or was, the last I heard). I like to think all this would have pleased my grandfather very much, if he were still alive.”

Icebergs, was a finalist for the 2007 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for first fiction and a recipient of the Michener-Copernicus Award. We can only hope that Icebergs comes back into print in the future for more readers to have the pleasure of reading this terrific novel.

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