What’s exciting in Milton today? Well let me see….the cats peeked at each other around a cardboard box, a chickadee successfully evaded my camera lens, and we’re waiting for take-out roast beef supper from the Milton Hall. I spent much of the day upstairs in the Captain’s Cabin with a book and a notepad.
I just finished my second reading of Anne Budgell’s new book “Dear Everybody – a woman’s journey from Park Avenue to a Labrador trapline”. A very good read it was. Anne must have an excellent understanding of how a Newfoundlander reads any book other than fiction. That is, not only with a great interest in the progress of the history and of the characters, but also with a keen eye for historical, grammatical or typographical errors, mispronunciations, or malapropisms. After the Dictionary of Newfoundland English was published, my father’s opening comment in any discussion of it, started not with a statement on what a great piece of work it was, which he genuinely believed, but with how he had found a mistake on such and such a page. I think that is often the way that Newfoundlanders show that they are interested in something; by finding fault. I digress. Ann nipped this possibility in the bud by starting her book with “Notes on the Text, Photographs, and Maps.” in which she presents any known variations in maps or place names, as well as acknowledging the spelling errors etc. in any of the journal entries. After said Newfoundland reader presented his criticisms he might well follow up with a “Anyhow, she can’t possibly know anything about it unless she lived it”. Anne would confound these critics as well because in 2012 she paddled the Churchill River and “really saw what Barbara saw” and has a very strong family connection to Labrador. So back off folks, there’s no holes to be picked in this volume. You’ll just have to work up a compliment or two to demonstrate your interest. Not that Newfoundlanders are necessarily her target audience; the book has universal appeal after all, but that province is where she calls home and she is very well known in there from her years of working with the CBC so likely a good proportion of her readers will be there.
You go into chapter one of Dear Everybody already knowing the story line as Anne summarizes the course of events in the prologue: how Barbara Mundy goes to Labrador as a Grenfell Mission volunteer and writes copious letters home and keeps journals describing her adventures in North West River, how she marries a local man and goes with him to spend the winter tending his trapline. Chapter one finds Barbara already in the woods, questioning the path she had taken thus far (life-path not portage-trail) and shoring up her spirits against any regrets. Chapter two then takes us quickly back to the beginning of the story, to Barbara’s family history and life in New York. From then on the narrative is essentially chronological.
This is a wonderfully well researched book (to which the 37 pages of endnotes and bibliography alone can attest). In presenting the story of Barbara’s adventures, Anne manages to give a concise and unbiased history of the Grenfell mission in Labrador, the building of the American air base in Goose Bay and the growth of the boom town around it, the relationships between the Innu and the trappers, and other events of the time. She moves in and out of this historical background without derailing the essential story. She helps us to visualize the contrast between the Mundy’s life of extravagance on Park Avenue with the small bare bones hovel known as the Labrador tilt. (How to Marry a Millionaire meets Survivorman?) It all makes for a wonderful story given that Barbara grew up with a chambermaid, cook and governess but is seen later on her extended “honeymoon”, building her own latrine and plucking her own partridge. Anne presents all of this without judgement, which must have been a challenge at times given some of the attitudes of the day.
Reading someone’s wilderness journal can often be as entertaining as counting an axe’s blaze marks on a trail; endless short entries of weather reports and distances travelled smattered with occasional marvels. Barbara’s journal entries are not so. They could be very visual and at times entertaining. In her description of duck hunting with Russell she could have just written, “I stayed in the bottom of the canoe while he paddled” but no, she elaborated and I visualized: “then we went in among the islands and pan ice everywhere – the wind had gone down, the ice was indescribable, yellow, blue, grey, white, snowy, “candles” in all shapes of birds – that and drifting sticks fooled us many times. I now no longer lay in the bottom but “spied” and then when R kneeled, and took the little paddle and we went along without a sound I sat up and looked thru the tiny peekhole in the fly, only the tip of my motionless head above and that did not matter as I too had on the white outfit – mine being a snitched operating cap and white jacket.” And unlike many personal journals, Barbara lets us know exactly what she she is feeling, whether it be inadequate, contented, frightened or punishing out “the curse”.
Between the journal entries all throughout the book, I can almost hear Anne narrating out loud, probably from hearing her voice on the radio for so many years. She clarifies, gives background, and gives us context for Barbara’s journal entries. It made me think many times as I was reading “This would make an excellent TV series.” It surely holds enough information to last at least three seasons if they really wanted to flesh out the New York end of the tale and the Grenfell Mission drama. A real-life Labrador version of Downton Abbey except Barbara goes off with a trapper instead of a chauffeur. Indeed, there are thousand subplots which could be expanded, like the finding of a pastor for the wedding, or the overnight visit of the Innu man.
There’s not much Anne left out. But like any good book it piqued my imagination and made me want more. You know the old expression, there are two sides to every story; well I think this one can be told with four or five sides in some instances. I would love to hear Russell Groves’ version; how he managed to reconcile Barbara’s idea of the trapline being an adventure with his years of solitary trapping as a vocation. A tilt was only ever meant for one and and he was not likely a man who ever washed his underwear or his hair while on the trapline. How he felt about shouldering the increase in workload to accommodate her, not to mention suffering the knowledge of all the tongue wagging in North West River. He must have been exasperated by her need to talk about feelings. In the absence of meat Barbara feared “bread and tea will become monotonous” while Russell likely feared that he would soon start digesting his own muscles for protein. I’d like to hear the story from the perspective of the local North West River women who were considered by Barbara not to be on any adventure but just living their ordinary lives. I wonder about Mina Paddon’s view of the young woman who came to work for the mission but was all about the picnics and canoeing.
It is not often I read a book twice, back to back at that. The fact that I did so with Dear Everybody speaks to my interest in the content; I have spent a good bit of time in Labrador, much of it wilderness canoeing. I have always been interested in the Grenfell Mission, the American presence in Goose Bay and who doesn’t like to read anything about Park Avenue. So that makes me wonder how this book reads to a person who doesn’t share those interests; would it be equally educational and entertaining for them? I will be curious to hear what others think. By the way, I can’t finish without mentioning the fabulous choice of quotes Anne used for her Chapter headings. Reading those alone tells a good bit of the story in a most enjoyable way.