I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I looked at this book and thought “When the hell did St. John’s have a great fire?” Not being a native of St. John’s, or Newfoundland, (or Canada if you want to get down to it,) I’m probably missing some things, but I can honestly say I learned something here.
Flame and Ashes: The Great Fire Diary of Triffie Winsor, St. John’s, Newfoundland, 1892, Janet McNaughton, 2014.
One of the interesting things that I enjoyed about the acknowledgments in this book (which is not a sentence I write very often), is that she noted that Barbara Haworth-Attard (another Dear Canada author) informed her that Triffie, initially, “was not a likable character.” Knowing that gave the book a very different cast to me! This is a classic “fortunes reversed” story, and I have no complaints against that when it’s done well—and it is done well here. But I can see, in certain lights, how Triffie is absolutely not a likable character, certainly in the first portion of the book.
Here’s another thing—the only other book set in Newfoundland is set in the early part of settlement, and this one is set near the turn of the century in an urban setting, which is an interesting choice. Newfoundland is usually stereotyped as backwards and rural, but this is very modern and urban in tone, which is interesting and a nice choice.
Anyway, Triffie (which if you’re wondering is a nickname for Tryphena, and which my born-and-bred Newfoundland correspondent tells me is a very old-fashioned and familiar name there, which is a very neat little touch) is the daughter of a wealthy department store owner in St. John’s, where she lives with her parents, older sister Sarah, and younger brother Alfie. Alfie is sickly with a lung complaint (asthma), and he and Triffie are very close, which means they are usually in trouble somewhere in their magnificent house. Triffie is a bit spoiled thanks to her wealth and her generous father, and their home is full of beautiful and expensive things. Triffie’s foil is their youngest maid, Ruby, who is almost her age, but comes from around the bay and is working in St. John’s because her family needs the money. Not that knowing her story makes it any better—Triffie writes that when she gave Ruby an old dress, “I am not sure Ruby was properly grateful for this Act of Charity. I think those who are unfortunate enough to be poor should at least have the grace to show gratitude.”