Between the Jigs and the Reels

Rachel is a recovering violinist, having quit the instrument years ago. But when she hears school caretaker Phonse Flynn playing the fiddle, Rachel is enchanted. So much so, that she asks him to teach her how to play it his way.  Here’s an excerpt from their first lesson:

Phonse picked up his fiddle and cradled it, the wood gleaming like a brooch against his work shirt. Although I had practised, I was self-conscious now; my arms felt rigid.

“Like this, luh,” said Phonse. “See how it’s resting on my shoulder? It’s got to be loose, it’s got to be like a part of you.”

I slipped the fiddle into a softer pose. Phonse played a few bars very slowly, his movements exaggerated. Then he pointed his bow at me. “Have at ‘er, girl.”

I drew the bow slowly across the strings and tried to copy what he’d done. We repeated this a few times then he put down his fiddle, sat with his hands on his knees and listened, his head down. I was glad I couldn’t see his face.

“Good,” he said, when I stopped. “You got the talent all right, but you’re stiff as a plank, maid. Loosen up.”

Even as he spoke, I could feel my shoulders hunch forward, my right arm tight. I forced them back and began again. Once I’d mastered a piece, we would repeat the process. Phonse would play, then I would mimic. Line after line. His playing sounded fluid, soft, and floaty. Mine sounded staccato, laboured, and stodgy.

Now, enjoy this video featuring the master fiddler himself, Emile Benoit. And you know what, he looks a bit like Phonse.



Stars in His Eyes & Dreams In His Head

On Christmas Eve, all alone in Newfoundland, Rachel O’Brien opens two gifts, one of which is a cassette tape of traditional music:

I stuck it in my boom box and lay back down as the lyrics of an unfamiliar song filled the room: 

“Sonny don’t go away, I am here all alone

Your Daddy’s a sailor, who never comes home

And the nights get so long and the silence goes on

And I’m feeling so tired I’m not all that strong

Sonny’s dreams can’t be real, they’re just stories he’s read

They’re just stars in his eyes, they’re just dreams in his head

And he’s hungry inside for the wide world outside

And I know I can’t hold him, though I’ve tried and I’ve tried…”

Sonny could be one of my students in Twig. But his lamenting mother didn’t sound like the ones I knew. Lucille, so proud of Linda teaching in Labrador, Cynthia’s mother, expecting her daughter to attend university and even Mrs Piercey who wanted more for Calvin than hauling wood. I thought of poor Georgie Corrigan, stuck in Twig but hungry for the wide world outside. They were all hungry for something, whether in Twig, in town, or even up on the mainland. I wanted to help them, but how?

Sonny’s Dream gets Rachel thinking. It has that effect on a lot of people. Whenever I hear it, I can almost picture the young Sonny, peering down the highway, stars in his eyes and dreams in his head. The song was written by Ron Hynes, a  Newfoundland singer-songwriter who died too young last November. The first time I ever saw him was when he performed with The Wonderful Grand Band at Memorial University  back in the early 1980s. The last time I saw him was at Union Station in Toronto about four years ago. I wasn’t sure who it was at first – leather jacket, black hat and guitar case – someone with presence, for sure. It was only when I was safely on board that I figured out who it was. I wanted to go find Ron Hynes on the train and tell him how I used to live in Newfoundland and had seen him perform. How I was trying to write a novel about Newfoundland and that it would feature traditional music. But I didn’t. I had my two young children with me, I felt a bit foolish, the list of excuses goes on. I really wish I’d spoken to him that day.



Any regrets?

We’ll Rant & We’ll Roar Like True Newfoundlanders

I said I would post about Ron Hynes this week, but recent events have bumped that post for now. If you’ve been reading my posts, it’s pretty clear that I love Newfoundland: a place of natural beauty with a strong sense of pride in its people and heritage. But many Newfoundlanders are ranting and roaring these days about the recent budget. Two things in particular stand out for me.

One, the province will become the first in Canada to charge HST on books. Two, just over half of  Newfoundland’s libraries are set to close over the next two years. Boo and hiss.  It makes no sense whatsoever for the province with the lowest literacy rate to bludgeon books like this.

Ranting and roaring about these proposals can make us feel better, but here’s two more things you can do:

  1. Sign the Atlantic Publishers Marketing Association‘s petition against the tax on books here.
  2. Support your local library, no matter where you live. Use it or lose it peeps.

And, to cheer us all up here’s Great Big Sea with We’ll Rant & We’ll Roar:






Three of a Kind 

What do these three books have in common ? Each features Newfoundland and/or Newfoundlanders. August Gale is a memoir/biography about Barbara Walsh’s Newfoundlanders ancestors, including  those who perished at sea in a terrible storm. The storyline shifts between that 1935 August gale and Walsh’s grandfather who abandoned his family when Walsh’s father was a child. It was given to me by a friend who has read several drafts of Up She Rises and gets my fondness for all things Newfoundland.

I passed August Gale on to my mother on a visit to Canada last week. In exchange, she gave me One Man Grand Band by Harvey Sawler about the recently deceased Newfoundland songwriter and musician Ron Hynes. I’m looking forward to reading it. (Mom, if you’re reading this, I think I got the better deal.) In next week’s post, I’ll write more about Ron Hynes.

Today I Learned It Was You is a newly released novel by Newfoundland writer Edward Riche. Bobbi French recommended it to me and Rick Mercer has endorsed it, so I know it will be fabulous. It’s not available in the UK, so I scooped a copy last week. No doubt I’ll be taking it back to Canada next time I go. I come from a family of readers and we like to share books. Sometimes my suitcase is so full of books I feel like a flying librarian, which would actually be a pretty amazing job.

Do you know any good books about Newfoundland ? Do you share your books?

D is for Dictionary & D is for Duckish

photo (42)

When Rachel arrives in Twig, she has some high-falutin’ notions about how to improve her students’ grammar and speech. Fellow teacher Doug decides to set her straight, introducing her to  The Dictionary of Newfoundland English:

Doug thrust two items  in my hands, a heavy yellow hardback book and a slim bound paper, its pages the colour of weak tea. Then he spun on his heel and left without another word.

Why was he so mad at me? I sat down on the stool and looked at the books he’d given me. The thick hardback was called A Dictionary of Newfoundland English. I couldn’t believe it. They had their own dictionary. I began flipping through the book, stopping to read random entries.

A discussion about arse went on for two columns; the entry for seal and related words and expressions lasted more than seven pages. It turned out that a bayman, which Patrick had said he’d make Doug in that first assembly, was someone who lived on or near a bay. A bazz was a blow or a slap. To blear was to utter prolonged complaints. Blearing. Is that what I’d been doing? My face burned at some of my thoughts about Twig and its inhabitants.

There are some wonderful videos on YouTube that explain Newfoundland words, like the one below about duckish. Oh, and I  looked duckish up in the Dictionary (p.158) and found that twilight can also be expressed as “between the duckies.” Love that.



Bonus time: pick a letter (any letter!) from the alphabet and leave it in a comment below and I’ll look up a word starting with that letter in the Dictionary and give you its definition below.




Fogo, Twillingate, Morton’s Harbour

When I was a schoolgirl in Ontario, long before my family moved to Newfoundland , I learned the song, I’se The B’y in a music lesson. I expect my protagonist Rachel did too. I had no idea what places like Fogo or Twillingate were like. I learned those place names by rote; precious little thought went into them.


Later, when we moved to Newfoundland we lived in St John’s; beyond excursions to nearby Ferryland, where my uncle lived, we didn’t do much exploring and Fogo didn’t chime any louder.

But for the past few years, Fogo Island has been ding dinging loudly in my thoughts.Ever since I read an article about returned Newfoundlander, Zita Cobb, who built The Fogo Island Inn as a way to turn around the economy of her birthplace. You know it’s very much in vogue when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spends Easter weekend there with his family.

If I ever make it back to Newfoundland, Fogo Island will be on my itinerary.Watch this clip featuring Zita Cobb and tell me you don’t want to go check it out too.



More Irish Than The Irish


In Chapter 19 of Up She Rises, Rachel impresses Peggy, a fellow teacher, by singing along to the chorus of Drunken Sailor:

“Sure you fits right in, maid,” said Peggy.

I picked at the label on my beer bottle. “My dad used to sing that song.”

She cocked her head. “Is he a Newfoundlander?”

I ignored the present tense. “Irish.”

“We’re more Irish than that crowd in Ireland,” Peggy said, clinking her beer bottle against mine.

Looking at her red hair and freckles, I had to agree.

Last week the Irish Times published an article written by Sinéad Ní Mheallaigh, currently teaching Irish Gaelic in Newfoundland. She says she only fully understood the expression “more Irish than the Irish themselves” when she arrived in Newfoundland. I had to laugh when I read this excerpt from her article:

These people celebrate St Patrick’s Day for a full month. They decorate their houses. They all dress in green for school and work. One bar even has a party on September 17th, marking six months to go. There are a number of Irish-Newfoundland groups here; the Irish Newfoundland association and the Benevolent Irish society both organise annual dances and events. On the morning of St Patrick’s Day, the pubs organise a buffet breakfast from 7.30am, with live music. Schools get a day off to celebrate.

Ni Mheallaigh’s article made me homesick for Newfoundland and Ireland. It’s a lovely piece and well worth a read.

What makes you homesick?