Whale of a tale

Michael Crummey's new novel explores Newfoundland's wacky folklore.

Michael Crummey's new novel explores Newfoundland's wacky folklore

Newfoundland author Michael Crummey has just published his third novel, Galore. ((CP PHOTO/HO/Random House of Canada/Holly Hogan))

Good books entertain, but great books do so much more — they take you completely by surprise, lift you out of yourself and transport you to a world you never knew existed.

By page three of Galore, the third novel by Newfoundland author Michael Crummey, it was clear to me that this book was going to be one of the great ones. Galore opens with a rancid-smelling man being plopped out of the belly of a whale onto the shores of a fictional Newfoundland fishing town known as Paradise Deep — and after that, the magic realism just keeps coming. In this richly detailed world, it’s not unusual to see mysterious ghosts, healers, mummers, "wart charmers" and witches roam freely in the novel’s naturalistic setting.

During a recent visit to Toronto, Crummey was rather animated about his creation. "I feel like this is best thing I’ve ever done," he says. "There’s a culmination here that I don’t really understand, but it feels like everything [I’ve written] has led to this."

The germ of his sublime fictional world came from an eccentric source close to home. "My thought was I would go looking for the most outrageous stories I could find in Newfoundland folklore and shove them all into one book," Crummey says. "I think of the folklore of Newfoundland as kind of the cultural DNA of the place. It is what makes us who we are."

Crummey set about doing research, spending time in the provincial archives in St. John’s, reading community histories and investigating everything from folk songs to the family names on Newfoundland tombstones in search of fodder for his book. It was an old English dancehall song called Jack Was Every Inch a Sailor that provided the striking opening image of a man being swallowed by a whale.

As its title suggests, Galore is an epic novel, spanning two centuries and several generations in the lives of two families locked in a long-standing and heated feud. There is the Devine clan, made up of impoverished fishermen and headstrong women with a gift for healing, and the Sellers family, headed up by King-me Sellers, the shrewd businessman who never forgave the Widow Devine for refusing his marriage proposal decades before.

(Random House Canada)

Galore includes an epigraph by Gabriel Garcia Marquez that reads: "The invincible power that has moved the world is unrequited, not happy, love." Like the Capulets and Montagues before them, the set-to between the Sellerses and the Devines is further complicated by forbidden inter-familial love affairs.

"The engine of the entire novel [is] these relationships, where there’s unrequited love of some sort involved, and it has always felt to me that that’s Newfoundlanders’ relationship to Newfoundland itself," says Crummey.

"Newfoundlanders have always been hopelessly tied to this place — it almost feels genetic. When Newfoundlanders leave Newfoundland, they’re sick for the place. But the place doesn’t return the love. It’s pretty fickle, Newfoundland is, and treats the people who live there pretty harshly."

Crummey takes pains to temper the book’s more fantastical elements with more realistic reminders of the brutal Newfoundland landscape. In one of the book’s most haunting passages, one character, the Reverend Dodge, attempts to bring food to starving Paradise Deep residents after a long winter, only to find an entire family that perished ("They had torn up the floorboards to burn when they ran out of firewood"). One bad cod season could spell disaster for the town’s residents, and at least three children born into the novel’s harsh climate are shown hovering near death. Galore, however, doesn’t dwell on such hardships — the book details some miraculous recoveries.

"There’s this theme of resurrection that runs through all of Newfoundland stories and Newfoundland folklore," Crummey says. "Every community in Newfoundland, it seems, has a story of a guy who dies and wakes up at his wake, or at the funeral. And I think the reason that’s so prevalent there is because it says so much about how people have survived in Newfoundland. You know, that even when it looks like there’s no hope, when everything is finished, there’s this unlikely resurrection that happens."

Throughout Galore, storytelling proves key to survival in Paradise Deep — not for nothing does one character risk drowning to retrieve books from a sinking ship. As for the generations of Sellerses and Devines, not only do they pass down strange genetic traits (like a stutter, an odour and a sleeping disease resembling narcolepsy), but they pass on the narratives that make up their family histories.

It’s clear that Crummey is passionate about preserving such strange lore.

"I’m not implying, ‘Oh, we’ve lost the real Newfoundland,’ or anything like that, but I do feel like there was something in that oral culture that was incredibly rich, is incredibly rich, and has made Newfoundlanders what they are. And the more of that that disappears, the less we’ll know who we are."

Galore is in stores now.

Lee Ferguson writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.