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.”
So we’ve established that Triffie isn’t the world’s most likable of people, and is frequently in trouble with her brother as well, and is a bit spoiled. So that’s where we’re starting off with when the fire begins to hit St. John’s. At first they’re not concerned, since it’s a hot and dry summer and there have been plenty of fires already, but Triffie starts to worry when it seems that everyone in town seems to be hauling their furniture and everything through the streets. Her mother shouts at her to bring all her underclothes in a hurry, and she and Sarah and her mother wrap up all the wedding china and pack it in a barrel. Then Triffie packs up a valise with “whatever [we] valued most,” and they leave for the park with Ruby and Nettie, the housekeeper.
On a selfish note, one of the things I enjoyed about this book was that since I’ve just returned from a trip to St. John’s last month, I was able to visualize it all extremely well, which is not something I can do with all Dear Canada books.
Anyway, as they’re leaving, Alfie begs their mother to leave the door open so their cat, Mouser, can escape the fire, and their mother does, even though it means leaving the house open for looters. They reach the park where everyone is sheltering from the fire and meet up with some of the store’s employees, who tell them that looters were already preparing to make their way into all the stores just ahead of the fire.
A very good chunk of St. John’s burns down, but luckily few lives are lost. Triffie is devastated at first that her school is burnt down, and Sarah tells her that she needs to shut the hell up about losing her school when people around them have lost every single thing they own. But then the next day they learn that their house has burnt down—and the store as well. Their beautiful new house, the store, the workshops, the wharves, everything. All they have left is the warehouse on the South Side and what they carried in their hands, and Mr. Winsor decides they will go live in the warehouse rather than rent a cottage and take space away from someone who has nowhere else to go. So after a brief respite at a family friend’s house, they pack up for the warehouse. They have almost nothing—the barrel of wedding china, Triffie’s bag with her journal and books and her jewelry and needle box and a beautiful satin dress, Alfie’s bag with spare clothes and his marbles, Sarah’s bag with her collection of hat trimmings (since she wants to be a milliner) and all her clothing and her jewelry, and her mother with clothing and jewels. (There’s a very funny bit where Sara, who is addicted to what we would today call “trashy novels,” begins crying an saying how she always knew a “reversal of fortune” would come to her, and she’s happy to go to Halifax and work as a milliner’s assistant and send money back until they’re back on their feet, until their father says it’s not at all necessary.) Luckily Nettie and Ruby have brought practical things—the kitchen things, the silver, and Ruby’s collection of all the money she’s been paid, which she says she’s happy to lend back if needed.
So they’re not all that poorly off compared to some of the rest of St. John’s, even though the warehouse is not at all comfortable and is drafty and old. They begin to collect others—Matthew Bright, who was one of the tinsmiths in Mr. Winsor’s store, and is now happy to stay with the Winsors. But the poor conditions in the warehouse and the ongoing smoke and dirt in the air from the fire cleanup begins to aggravate Alfie’s lungs again, and Ruby suggests that she return to her home around the bay and take Alfie with her—since the Winsors don’t need a housemaid at the moment, and Alfie’s health will improve—and the Winsors jump at the chance. Triffie is devastated at losing her best companion, and is unspeakably angry with Ruby for suggesting it. But there’s nothing she can do, and they’re off very shortly after that, much to Triffie’s utter disappointment.
By the end of July, Mr. Winsor manages to find both their old stove and Mouser the cat, which considerably helps things in the old warehouse. Unfortunately, they also hear that many, many homes were looted before they burned, which means that their things might be there somewhere in the city and they wouldn’t even know about it. But rather than rely on this, Triffie and her family are waiting for their orders to come from London—things that were already purchased to sell in the shop, and now will be sold out of the warehouse instead.
Triffie also finds a boy not much older than herself sleeping in his boat under the bridge, and he comes to live with them as well—Ned, who had been brought up by his grandfather after his parents’ death, and not at all well. So Ned comes to live with them as well in exchange for the use of his boat and being a general errand boy. Then not long after that, Triffie and her mother go to the park and find three of the store’s shopgirls still living there—Phoebe and Liza and Rose Noseworthy, who are quite miserable living in a little shed all squeezed together. So the three girls come to live with them in the warehouse as well, since Mrs. Winsor is so outraged at how the single women are being treated in the makeshift camp, and their home grows by three.
Mr. Winsor eventually decides that rather than rebuild their house first, he will rebuild a store instead—and they might be in the warehouse a year or two, but Triffie and Sarah will return to their school just like normal. When the shipment of goods arrives, it seems that things may actually begin to return to normal, unbelievably—they take inventory of the clothing and soap and yard goods and millinery things and shoes and watches and jewelry and knives and a hogshead barrel of sugar, which had been intended to make the candy for the confectionary.
Reopening their store is hugely successful, and they receive another shipment of stock with kitchenware and other badly-needed necessities. By the end of August it’s time for Alfie and Ruby to return, and while Triffie is anxiously awaiting Alfie’s arrival, a police officer comes to their warehouse and tells them a good number of their property has been recovered from looters and is available for them to take back! So the family gets Alfie back—tanned and strong and healthy—as well as Ruby, who Triffie is less happy to see, but she does her best to be thoughtful and respectful to her, compared to how she acted before the fire. And after they bring Alfie home, they get their things—their dining room table and some of the chairs, the kitchen cupboard, a bed, and a wagonload of small things. But Triffie realizes, finally, that their things aren’t worth as much as her family and all their new friends.
In the epilogue, Sarah marries a lawyer and has several children, Alfie takes over the family business, and Ned goes to fight at the Somme and returns home to keep the books at the store. Triffie doesn’t marry until she’s almost thirty and her family has given her up for an old maid, but she marries an American doctor with whom she can travel the world happily.
Rating: B+. The story is a little simplistic—it’s fairly straightforward “rich girl learns that people are more important than things,”—but it’s well done for all that. Triffie is a fun character, even if she’s not always likeable—she’s realistic, which is pleasant! The other characters are well-drawn and entertaining, and the story is good even if it’s well-trod territory. This one is a bit younger in tone than some of the other Dear Canada books, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s a good and enjoyable book, and hey. I learned something, which doesn’t always happen on this blog.