On the rock

This is our Place, This is our Home

By Mary Soderstrom

A review of This Is Our Place, This Is Our Home by Joan Edward

Published on April 1, 2007

This Is Our Place, This Is Our Home
Joan Edward

Breakwater Books
$29.95
paper
324pp
1-55081-201-7

The word “amateur” has its origins in the Latin word “amare,” to love. Looked at that way, Joan Edward’s book This is Our Place, This is Our Home is an amateur work in the most interesting sense. Edward obviously has a deep affection for Newfoundland and its people, and her book offers a loving portrait in words and drawings.

Most of Edward’s career has centred around music: she studied piano in Montreal and London, worked as a music editor with the National Film Board and taught privately for years. All along she kept journals, and she painted and drew. In 1988 she “discovered” Newfoundland, and says that it has been her great inspiration ever since. She has spent many summers there, and an entire year in 1992-93. Her respect and love for Newfoundlanders shines through on every page of the book she has made from her notes, reflections and sketches.

The book is divided into six sections, representing six regions of Newfoundland: Fogo Island, Twillingate Islands, the Avalon Peninsula, the West Coast, the South Coast and St. John’s. Edward includes small maps of each region, and excerpts from the journal she kept when she first visited. Then she expands on what she saw and who she met, giving short accounts of their lives and the stories they told her as she sketched them. Their faces shine forth from the pages, sometimes smiling, sometimes deeply lined by years of hard work at home and on the sea. Interspersed are drawings of the outports they live in, the homesteads they’ve maintained on the rocky island soil, and the boats into which many of them poured their youth and their hope and their energy.

She shows us a grave marker from the Port Kirwin cemetery: “here lieth ye body of Iohn Commons who Departed this Life Decemb’r ye 8th, Aged 18 months 1746”; then presents Alex Crocker of Trout River, bearded and handsome in his foul-weather gear as he stands in front of his boat; the graceful curves of the West Coast hills at The Gulch in winter; smoking ruins of part of St. John’s after a major fire in 1992; and Joe Combden of Barr’d Islands, posing in a baseball cap and a fine cable-knit sweater, his gnarled hands resting in his lap. And much more.

Too much more, in fact. The drawings and visits were made over many years, and in several places Edward brings us up to date on what happened since she recorded a person’s face and thoughts. There are two Afterwords, one from 2002 and one from 2004: she appears to not have been quite sure when the book was finished. This is a shame because more involved editorial guidance would have fashioned from her material a truly extraordinary book bearing witness to what happens when a strong and independent people find themselves shipwrecked on the reefs of ecological disaster. Again and again the people she interviewed talk about the end of the cod fishery, the warning signs that went unheeded by government, and how marine life is being vacuumed up by factory ships, but this very important cautionary tale is lost in the details and the charming pictures.

This is a book that is a pleasure to dip in and out of. It should be on sale at every little shop in Newfoundland that caters to the tourist trade because it captures a good deal of the flavour of the place. But it remains an amateur work in the more pejorative sense of the word. It would have been much better had Edward had more professional help in sharpening her focus, editing her text, and clarifying her message. mRb

Mary Soderstrom is an old leftie herself, and the author of a biographical novel about an Anglophone Patriot in the nearest thing to a revolution that Canada ever had: The Words on the Wall: Robert Nelson and the Rebellion of 1838 (Oberon Press, 1998).

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