Winter of Peril

I’ve only read this once before, and I have Thoughts. They’re mostly not all that good.

Winter of Peril: The Newfoundland Diary of Sophie Loveridge, Mairie’s Cove, New-Found-Land, 1721, Jan Andrews, 2005.

sophie loveridge.jpg

My first question is why? Newfoundland has such a long, storied history with such great stories in it that I don’t know why Andrews opted to focus on this one. I would have guessed, if it had been up to me, that for the Newfoundland entry Dear Canada would have opted for a slice-of-life style diary (think Days of Toil and Tears) about life in an outport fishing village sometime in the mid-1800s, which would probably be the most iconic. Or maybe a Second World War story about the Battle of the Atlantic, or joining Canada in 1949, or even (and stay with me here) a story about the Viking settlement at L’anse-aux-Meadows! (Too out there? Probably.) I love Newfoundland A LOT and just returned from an extremely agreeable weekend there, so I’m favourably disposed to like it this story, but for whatever reason both Newfie entries in Dear Canada end up falling flat. (The other being Smoke and Ashes, which is relatively new and about the fire of St. John’s in 1892.)

At any rate, what we have here is a fairly classic fish-out-of-water story about a wealthy girl from Dorset who comes to Newfoundland with her parents, who are equally wealthy and out-of-touch, and they stay over during a harsh winter. You’d think there’s room for an engaging story there, but ultimately it falls fairly flat despite an awful lot of drama. Maybe it’s just me because I don’t care for Sophie’s voice, but overall, this one was not a win for me.

Like I said, as we open Sophie is twelve years old on her family’s estate in Dorset, where she has been raised mostly by her nanny with occasional input from her uncle, and little interest from her parents, who are fairly useless artistic types—father being a poet and mother being a little bit of a painter, but neither one of them are any good. Fun fact: a good chunk of Newfoundland settlers from England originated from Dorset, and linguists have made a number of connections between the Dorset accent of the period and current Newfie-ese. I’m already getting off topic. Anyway, Sophie’s father wants to go to Newfoundland to write an epic book that will make him as wealthy as Daniel Defoe, and he’s taking Sophie and her mother with him, and they’re going to stay over winter in the spirit of adventure. Everyone raise your hands if you can see the millions of flaws in this plan already.

They set out not too very long after that, accompanied by an old man appropriately named Old Lige, whom Sophie’s uncle arranges will stay with them during the winter, because he’s the only person with any sense in this story and he can see that Sophie’s father is going to crash and burn this thing spectacularly. They set off on  a small ship, the Daisy, where Sophie is left to her own devices and doesn’t know what to do about anything—she can’t even undress herself, and her mother treats her like a servant when she doesn’t know anything herself. They’re all sick as dogs, and Lige’s grandson Thomas sneers at Sophie for being so pitifully clueless. The ship takes on a number of Irishmen and two women, Katherine and Peg, and then they’re off to the open ocean and to Newfoundland.

Their journey is relatively short—just under a month, which makes sense if you pull out a map and see how close Newfoundland is to Ireland. It’s a good bit closer than the American coast! Anyway, now they’re on land, and Sophie decides that she’d like to do something useful instead of just sitting around all the time doing nothing, which is what she has been doing. Her useful thing is collecting the chicken’s eggs, which doesn’t seem like much, but it’s something, at least.

The men begin fishing, and we all learn a little bit about the fishery process, and once the fish come in by June they’re rolling in them all. Sophie spends a lot of time following Old Lige around and learning about how the fisheries work, but I’m not going to recap that because there are far better books about fishery processes out there. Sophie begins working—a tiny bit—with Katherine and Peg, but mostly just because some of the boys are griping that she does nothing but get in everyone’s way. Which, in all fairness, is true—and is also true for her parents, who do nothing besides walk and her father writes the occasional stanza of a poem. Sophie realizes that at home she wouldn’t think twice about ordering people around to do things for her, but she feels differently about it here, and doesn’t know why.

Sophie’s mother miscarries a baby, and Sophie complains that no one will tell her much of anything about it, but her mother recovers and thinks that Sophie’s father will allow them to go home afterwards. But he doesn’t—they argue, and all the same, Sophie and her parents are set to stay there all winter—along with Old Lige, and Katherine and Peg and their respective husbands, Eamon and Angus. At one point they encounter some Beothuks, and Sophie gives her doll to a girl about her age—although I think this trope shows up in every single book where any white girl meets any Indian girl, ever. Katherine and Peg and Angus and Eamon are staying only because they’ll be paid to do so and it will give them a leg up to start their own farms, but Sophie’s father is bitter and thinks they’ll be ruining his “adventure.”

I’ll say this for the last time to get it out of the way: Sophie’s father is a terrible idiot.

Instead of having cabins, they have small “tilts,” which are small lean-tos, and they have one for sleeping, one for eating, one for cooking, and so on. But Sophie’s mother says they need to have space, and makes the Irish couples stay in their own tilts across the stream, because she’s a snob. And then, making things worse, Sophie’s father says that after the ship leaves, none of the family are to speak to the Irish couples—the better to “be alone.” This is obviously moronic, and Sophie ends up talking an awful lot to Old Lige after the Daisy leaves, while he teaches her to do things like build a fire and milk cows.

So because she’s the only one to care enough to do it, Sophie ends up hauling wood and building fires and generally putting things to right for her parents, who won’t turn a hand to help themselves. Her mother is busy painting still lifes, and her father will occasionally shoot a goose, but mostly wanders around and writes poetry. Her parents don’t notice her birthday pass at the end of October, and they also don’t notice when Old Lige starts to slow down in November and have trouble catching his breath while he works. Lige is an old man, and he does his best to tell Sophie what needs to be done, but he dies at the beginning of November, and Sophie is racked with guilt. She thinks—quite rightly—that he died for her and her parents, and while she realizes this, her parents absolutely do not.

At any rate, after that Sophie’s parents expect her to do all the work and the cooking that Lige had been doing, which she is completely incapable of, and finally her mother realizes this and makes “an arrangement” with Katherine. So Katherine will take care of them in return for the chickens and the cow, or the replacement animals if they don’t last the winter, which is a great bargain on her part. After all this nonsense, Sophie’s father says he realizes his mistake—no, not the entire book, unfortunately, just the part where he “realizes” that the Irish are there to serve them, obviously. Lovely. I mean, it’s period-accurate, but this guy has not done a single useful thing this entire book.

Winter sets in for real, and Sophie grows very close to Katherine, who teaches her quite a bit. Katherine’s husband Eamon is fairly free with his fists, while Peg and her husband Angus are on very good terms, which makes things a bit strained. Peg has a baby just before Christmas, Mairie—who they call their little cove for: Mairie’s Cove. Which is sweet. Katherine gets tired of Eamon’s abuse and says she’s going to stay with Sophie in her tilt until he gets his act together, and who manages to put an end to it but Sophie’s mother!

The winter drags on, colder and icier and snowier, and the food begins to get a bit scarce. They eat up all the chickens, and they find themselves eating seaweed by March when all the food is just about gone. They’re saved in the nick of time by a seal that washes up on the beach—the seal meat manages to get them through the last gasp of winter, just as the Daisy returns at the end of April and brings them food and supplies. The ship’s doctor inspects them all, the new animals are delivered, they have enough to eat and don’t need to build fires constantly, and things are generally picking up a good bit. But then the men of the other ship to arrive, the Martha, massacre a band of Beothuks for no other reason than they think they might be a threat. But Sophie can’t do anything about this, so she just goes on helping with the fish catch that summer.

In the epilogue, Sophie and her family pack up and go to Trinity, which is further down the coast in Newfoundland, and more settled. Her parents still mostly ignore her, but Sophie finds that she has a talent for learning new things and becomes a bookkeeper for a merchant as a teenager. She marries Thomas, Lige’s grandson, and they return to Mairie’s Cove to settle there, with Katherine and Peg and their husbands and children. Sophie and Thomas have no children, and she never sees her parents again, but instead teaches the children in their small community all her life.

Rating: C. I don’t know. Is it bad? No. It’s not badly written, and the characters aren’t boring, but it has no heart. It should be thrilling—this wealthy girl finds herself in a totally different milieu, they almost starve to death, there’s death and a sea voyage, this book ought to be just swimming in drama! But none of it seems to have any real impact. It’s not emotionally stimulating. I don’t care about any of it. I found myself putting the book down and not really caring about what happened, none of the characters stuck with me, none of that. There are plenty of terrific Dear Canada books, but this one is a swing and a miss, and it makes me sad. Newfoundland deserves so much better than this!

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