Nfld. & Labrador·#nlreads

Why a Rabbittown corner store tells more than just a family's tale

Trudy Morgan-Cole's Most Anything You Please explores the changing fortunes of Rabbittown, of St. John's, and of the province, all from behind the counter of a family-owned corner store.

Most Anything You Please by Trudy Morgan-Cole is a contender for the 2019 NL Reads crown

Trudy Morgan-Cole says she writes exactly the kind of books she'd like to read. (John Gushue/CBC)

"I've gotten to a point in my career where I realize I'm never going to write the great Canadian novel, but I wanted to write the great Rabbittown novel. And I think I've maybe done that," says Trudy Morgan-Cole with a laugh.

Morgan-Cole's 16th novel, Most Anything You Please, spans three generations of Holloway women — Ellen, Audrey and Rachel — who own a small corner store in Rabbittown. The book starts in 1938, when the neighbourhood is on the outskirts of St. John's. As the Holloway family grows, so too does the city around them.

And it's one of four contenders for this year's NL Reads top prize.

From November 2018 to February 2019, we're asking you to read four books by Newfoundland and Labrador authors — Most Anything You Please, The Boat People by Sharon Bala, The End of Music by Jamie Fitzpatrick and Something For Everyone by Lisa Moore — and then vote for the book you think should win NL Reads right here.

Which of these books will be the 2019 NL reads champ? You get to help decide. (Sarah Smellie/CBC)

The corner store as the neighbourhood cornerstone

Morgan-Cole lived in Rabbittown for most of her adult life, she said, and has always loved how the neighbourhood has avoided the purchase-renovate-and-re-sell cycle of gentrification and been a cheaper place to live for lower-income, working-class people and for many of the people settling in St. John's from countries around the world.

But she's been sad to see the corner stores disappear, a phenomenon not even Rabbittown could avoid.

"People tended to go to the corner shop closest to them, which might be only one block from the next corner stop shop, but you had your place that you went. And so you saw the same people over and over — the same shopkeepers but also the same neighbours shopping. It was a real piece of consistency in people's lives and that's what has been lost."

Most Anything You Please, she said, grew out of her memories of the Rabbittown corner stores she grew up with.

"Using a family who owns a corner shop ... would be great way to explore not just kind of the rise and fall in changing fortunes of that one family ... but also in widening concentric circles: the neighborhood, the city, the province and really our whole culture." 

Most Anything You Please by Trudy Morgan-Cole is one of the 2018 NL Reads contenders. (Stephanie Tobin/CBC)

Sharing a moment with her character

Morgan-Cole's favourite moment in the book is one she got to share herself with her character, Audrey.

Audrey is Ellen's daughter, and she's certain she'll leave the store and the neighbourhood behind when she falls in love with an American soldier during the Second World War and moves away with him.

But things don't quite work out. And her return to Rabbittown begins with the death of Hank Williams Sr., her favourite singer, and her decision to pack it all up and head to his funeral.

"I was trying to imagine what the scene might've been like, and I had read about the thousands of people who poured into this town for the funeral," she said.

Then she found an old recording of the audio from the service online.

"So I was listening to this old recording from 1953 that somebody had posted online. I was sitting there listening in my room, in my headphones, to the exact same thing my character would have been hearing in this scene."

"That was a really magical moment for me as a writer."

Most Anything You Please is Trudy-Morgan-Cole's 16th novel. (John Gushue/CBC)

Butterflies coming alive

Morgan-Cole said she writes the kind of books she'd like to read — raucous historical fiction — but that she often can't bring herself to go back and read her own work. The invisible-to-everyone-but-her errors jumps off the page and after years of research and writing, the excitement is gone, she said.

"It's like you're capturing butterflies and then you're pinning them to a board and they're under glass," she said. 

But talking about her books with readers at book clubs, or at event like the 2019 NL Reads gala, where CBC's Stephanie Tobin will be advocating for Most Anything You Please as this year's NL Reads champ, gives her a way back into the world she created and loves.

"The butterflies come back to life!"

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Sarah Smellie is a journalist in St. John's.