OUR HOMESICK SONGS: a novel
Come all ye young sailors and listen to me,
I’ll sing you a song of the fish of the sea.
Then blow ye winds westerly, westerly blow,
We’re bound to the south’ard, So steady she goes.
[old shanty song] ” Fish of the Sea”, verse 1
Canada’s 500 year old cod-fishing industry ground to a halt in 1992 when decades of over-fishing of the Northern cod had reduced the species to dangerous levels. In an attempt to allow the cod stocks to rebuild, Canada placed a cod fishing moratorium along its east coast. Overnight, families living on the coastlines of Newfoundland faced unemployment and the end of generations of family fishing heritage. Most took part in a mass migration to the mainland provinces of Canada to support their families.
When the first fisherman settled Newfoundland, they brought a rich tradition of music with them.
“They sang shanties as they worked and shared ballads and tunes at the end of the day. Over time, the settlers and their descendants reworked the old music and created new songs to tell their own stories. Newfoundland music spoke of work, politics, humour, fear, hope, tragedy and the ebb and flow of day-to-day existence. . .” – (Newfoundland Heritage)
Our Homesick Songs, set on the east coast of Newfoundland in a small fishing village of Big Running, features the Aiden and Martha Connors family. It’s 1993. A year ago, the last Northern cod was pulled from their bay. Their fishing boat, like that of their neighbors, sits idle at dock. The government sends welfare checks, but these people are proud and productive. One by one, families abandon their homes and head for the Canadian mainland for work in the oil and gas fields. They leave with a suitcase and their musical instruments leaving behind their identity, their music and their dreams.
As we meet the Connors family, Aiden and Martha are sharing a heartbreaking decision with their children, ten-year old, Finn, and fourteen-year old, Cora. It’s time to go where there is work. They aren’t ready to uproot their lives so they will share a job; one parent will leave for a month and one will stay with the children. Every thirty days, they will switch places.
As difficult as it is for the parents, the decision is harder on the children. Alone, the last family, Cora and Finn must use their imagination to fill their days. Finn, with sea water in his veins, dreams of ways to restore fishing to the village and Cora establishes her own world creating artwork in the abandoned houses that take her around the world. When all the houses have been turned into countries, she runs away from home with a plan.
“Finn, I want to show you something. [Inside the Ryan house] everything was bright yellow and pink and blue and green and red. . . There were pieces of green card cut into cactus shapes up the sides of the sofa and fireplace. . . It’s Mexico, said Cora!”
As we track that first year of the family split across Canada, the story shifts back and forth with the tide to the 1970’s. Back when the cod were plentiful and Aiden Connors spent long nights fishing on his boat singing shanties. Back when the orphaned Martha Murphy sat alone on the shore for years, after her sisters had gone to sleep, crafting fishing net and listening to the mermaid sing far out on the dark sea.
“Mermaids need to sing. Sad songs. homesick songs. And the only one that who could hear it was a lonely orphaned girl. But tying knots and listening to the mermaid sing made her feel better.” Until the day she discovers that the mermaid singing is Aidan and she marries him.
Sometimes, aged Mrs. Callaghan (my favorite character), Finn’s accordion teacher and the community’s matriarch, takes the story even further back with song lyrics crafted by ancient mariners and fables of old Ireland.
The novel itself, moves very slowly, with gaps and pauses in the sometimes long dialogues. It’s as though the sea winds blow away any unnecessary words. During that first year apart, the lonely separation is hard on Aiden and Martha and they each stumble against their marriage vows. Cora sets out to see the world with a secret plan to help the family. Finn, bless his little heart, is convinced that pulling the community together in song and music will bring back the fish and bring back the boats.
The ending is sweet if not long in coming.
Good reading on a rainy day.