Ho-Hummmmmm. This is Canadian writing at its most boring. Go to sleep. Wake up in a hundred years and it will be just as boring, writes an Amazon.ca customer from Canada reviewing Rockbound, by Frank Parker Day, in March 2005. How different that reaction is to the one that greeted the novels initial publication more than seventy-five years ago.
In an enthusiastic letter dated 27 October 1928, Archibald MacMechan congratulated Day for bringing realism to the amateur stage of Canadian fiction. Raymond Knister in a 1928 issue of Saturday Night, and J. D. Robins in The Canadian Forum, April 1929, both considered the story an epic. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Ironbound, a fishing village on an island off Nova Scotias South Shore that provides the basis for the books setting, compared Day to Judas Iscariot when he betrayed his Master for the money Rockbound was likely to earn its author. In a letter signed by the Offended Citizens of Rockbound and published in February 1929 in two Nova Scotia newspapers, Ironbounders lambasted Day for portraying them as ignorant, immoral and superstitious and for misusing the hospitality that they had extended him: Why Mr. Day put such a ridiculous book on the market, belittling the inhabitants of his native province, and those who befriended him, is beyond the power of our conception, they wrote. This is hardly Canadian writing at its most boring. Either the sour review was written by a still-rankled descendent of Ironbound or by someone bereft of imagination as another Amazon.ca customer suggests.
A classic tale built of human relationships and around human strengths and weaknesses, Rockbound is indeed a story that seduces the readers imagination. Told in a linear fashion that I found relaxing, even reassuring, Rockbound is reminiscent of novels by Austen, Hardy and Lawrence. Like them, and many of the other classic British authors whose works Day would have taught as an English professor at the University of Bristol, the University of New Brunswick and at American colleges and universities during the early 1900s, Day envelopes the reader in an imagined cloak of rich regional details and well-delineated, vulnerable characters coping with physical challenges, and emotional and moral dilemmas. This intimate cloak, shared only by reader and author, has the capacity, rather rare these days, to muffle distracting noises and stop time, for a welcomed while at least.
Perhaps Donna Morrissey, author of Kits Law and Downhill Chance, sensed the storys reassuring warmth too. Last year, she proposed and successfully defended the novel against, among others, Margaret Atwoods Oryx and Crake for the 2005 CBC Canada Reads debates. Not that Days story is anywhere near as outlandish or disturbing as that of Atwood. On the contrary, Rockbound is the timeless tale of an intelligent, uneducated, penniless young orphan whose pride, work ethic, integrity and respect for the sea enable him to claim the house and territory that rightfully belong to him. Always in the grip of Destiny of some strange consequence yet hanging in the stars that he could not understand, David Jung doggedly pursues the dream that he cannot clearly define until he has made a garden for himself on Barren Island. Renaming it Gershom Island after two Gershoms, the old lighthouse keeper and Young Gershom, Davids closest friend, he finally turns toward the light, along the turfy path . . . a way of gold, full of flowers, not of this earth, but like to those which mediaeval painters adorned their foregrounds, his child, little Ralph, sleeping in his arms and his virtuous wife Mary at his side.
True, if not boring, the book, so far, sounds precious, as do the names of Days characters, Casper, Christian, Old Anapest, Mary, and the antagonist Uriah. Also true, with the authors frequent nods to the Devil both on land and sea, with his penchant for retelling the regions ghost stories, and with the Chaucerian epigraphs he has chosen to introduce every chapter, literary critic Janice Kulyk Keefer cannot be blamed for attributing to Rockbound the most fairy-tale of plots. Not to worry though. The novel is far from formulaic.True, if not boring, the book, so far, sounds precious, as do the names of Days characters, Casper, Christian, Old Anapest, Mary, and the antagonist Uriah. Also true, with the authors frequent nods to the Devil both on land and sea, with his penchant for retelling the regions ghost stories, and with the Chaucerian epigraphs he has chosen to introduce every chapter, literary critic Janice Kulyk Keefer cannot be blamed for attributing to Rockbound the most fairy-tale of plots. Not to worry though. The novel is far from formulaic.
Primary among its strengths is the sound of the words. By sound I mean two things: first the local fishermens drawl that Day so deftly and consistently conveys in his dialogues. Gwendolyn Davies in her Afterword to the 1989 edition describes this dialect as the distinctive flavour of the Lunenburg Dutch spoken along the South Shore of the province. The book recalls the areas heritage also for Morrissey. She comments that the voice of Rockbound is one of the many things that intrigued her about the book: After reading the novel, I couldnt imagine it any other way; the richness of the language, its uniqueness lends an authenticity to the story that would be sadly lost without it. And, as Morrissey notes, after a few pages, understanding the dialect becomes effortless.
The second sound feature of this book is the musicality of many of Days descriptive passages. A good example is this introduction of David as he rows his yellow dory, his only possession, to make demands of Uriah, the rich king of Rockbound, who had wealth in boats and land, and lofts piled high with herring nets and tubs of trawl:
He was barefoot and clad only in a pair of ragged brown trousers and a faded blue buttonless shirt that fell open at the neck to reveal a bronzed and hairy chest. His hands that clutched the oars were calloused and split, and scarred with marks of salt-water boils and burns from running hand line or halliard. . . . He was not unhandsome and when he smiled the corners of his mouth twitched and drooped.
Alliteration and rhythm here breathe life into the appearance and behaviour of the authors protagonist as the young man begins his voyage of destiny.
Other notable stylistic traits include the way in which Day weaves into the thoughts of his characters his own ruminations on English literary greats such as Shakespeare and Byron, on the craft of writing-when, for instance, David is learning to write the alphabet, he reflects: The letters seemed to him fixed, unchanged from the beginning, inevitable.-and on time and space. Moreover, Day is often simply funny. He puns on the word exercise and exorcise, for example, in the story about dat Sanford ghos that Young Gershom recounts for David between soul-kindling draughts of hot rum. By tapping into the readers awareness of the distinction between the two words, Day includes us in Gershoms audience, thus teasing our suspension of disbelief in a light-hearted and memorable fashion.
Subsequent to the rocky initial reception of Doubleday New Yorks 1928 publication, Rockbound has had several publishing lives and was the catalyst for one theatrical production. In 1973, Douglas Lochhead included the novel in his Literature in Canada, Poetry and Prose in Reprint series, with an introduction by A. R. Bevan, published by the University of Toronto Press. An edition that came out in 1989, with the Afterword by Davies, was reprinted three times by UTP (in 1997, 2004 and 2005). However, apart from a 1958 article by Bevan in the The Dalhousie Review, and a successful 1998 theatrical adaptation by Susan Shillingford in Nelson, B.C., earlier publications of the novel have gone relatively unnoticed. Thanks in large part to Morrissey, this latest return of Days book, considered to be the best of his four novels, has finally received an overdue, and ultimately surprising, national welcome. Prior to the CBC debate, an average of 200 copies were bought each year. Since the debate, UTP has sold over 25,000 copies of Rockbound. Michelle Ariss
(Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada