What Am I Reading Now?

…or There’s Always a Lot More to a Story

It’s been a little while since I finished reading “We All Expected to Die.” I read it in lieu of doing my annual Boxing Day puzzle this year and although I smoked right through it at the time, I had to let it percolate a little before I wrote anything about it. This is not a book review. I don’t feel qualified to review such an academic work. As well, I am biased, having a personal connection with the author. On the other hand, I’d like to have an answer prepared in case someone asks me “What did you think of Anne Budgell’s latest book?” So here’s my humble impression…

Anne starts her book by giving us not just a comprehensive introduction to the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-1919 but also by giving us details of what each chapter will contain, and an idea of how the story has been researched and explained thus far. In essence she puts everything in context before she starts so it is clear from the outset that this is a not just about the effect of the flu on the Inuit, but about a global view of the epidemic. So also are we well prepared to find that, as good a hook as the title may be, this is not a ‘story’ in the traditional style of story-telling. She did not hand-pick the juicy bits to entertain us or work to develop a story to its climax. Instead, she gathered all of the information available and presented a well researched documentation of all things relating to the Spanish flu in Labrador. Her tack in this book is not sensationalist. The introduction contained one line which reassured of this and told me that this tale would be told with sensitivity as well as with accuracy: “I hope the descendants of survivors understand that by checking their ancestors’ stories, I intend no disrespect.” It also has the effect of shutting down any argument from people who have issues with someone else telling a story which they think should be told by the people to whom it happened. This shouldn’t be up for debate anyhow especially as Anne has solid roots in Labrador. As always, Anne works very hard to ensure that her intent is not misunderstood.

Years ago when The Dictionary of Newfoundland English was published, instead of marvelling at the work, all my father had to say about it was (and he did this with a broad proud grin) “I found a mistake on page _.” Were he alive today, and reading this book I think he would be confounded, for there is little likelihood of any errors or omissions here. We know this because Anne explains in great detail how this story has already been documented and how it evolved. If there is a stone unturned in her research it must certainly be of the most obscure and subterranean kind.

“We All Expected To Die” is a thorough documentary which speaks to her background as a journalist and radio host. In her writing she does not speculate, but rather interprets the facts. Neither she doesn’t leave it to you to have to read the bibliography for support; she presents the support for statements as they are presented. She follows the records to give us an overview of the population at the time, the effects of shipping and of the great war on that population, and on the people who actually kept the records. None of this will come as a surprise to you as you read, for Anne outlines all of this in the introduction. This might make for dense reading for the casual reader. It also makes me think that Anne would have made an excellent lawyer. (That, dear readers, is pure speculation on my part) Anyhow, what we learn from this thorough presentation of facts is that if the story was very grim, very grim, the response to epidemic was even more so.

Because this is a work of non-fiction I cannot complain about what isn’t in it. I went into this book knowing some about the culture and the environment of Labrador, of the Moravian and Grenfell missions, and of the effects of resettlement on the Labrador Inuit. I also have a personal connection with that part of the world; my father and his father were both floaters (seasonal fisherman) on that area of the coast. I too know what it is like to be waiting for the spring pack-ice to go out so that I could catch the steamer. What would interest me most in reading for pleasure would be the stories behind the individuals involved, the descriptive details that make me feel as if I am there on the spot shivering with the cold, smelling the decay, feeling the shock and despair. I would want to sit by the fire and smell the food cooking; hear the plink of the axe as it cleaved a frozen junk of wood. This book does not do that because it is a retelling of the truth and I appreciate that for as much as I want to experience the whole story, I don’t want anyone to make it up. Anne’s recounting of the details of the Inuit’s experience is the culmination of what must have been exhausting research. The stories are told as the people who experienced told them. I suspect those people often told just the bits they knew people wanted to hear and didn’t focus on the little individual miseries as much as on the great dramas. And, like those Grandpappies who fought in the trenches, they might need some fierce coaxing to talk about the thing at all because they really had little interest in reliving the horror of it. The Inuit, in their pragmatic and gentle way, have moved on. (I apologize if I am both speculating and stereotyping here)

We are told in the book that “How flu reached Labrador and who was infected is a multi-faceted story” and I appreciate that Anne took the time to study each facet and collate the findings into a well ordered chronology of events. If it seems repetitive at times it is because she has taken the information she has gleaned from her research and presented it from many angles. She doesn’t just want us to be informed, she wishes us to understand, just in case we haven’t figured it out for ourselves.

So what did I think of Anne Budgell’s latest book? I thought it was a grand piece of writing and a valuable addition to the annals of Labrador history.  I left this book with the understanding that yes, the devastation of the Labrador Inuit community was a tragedy which may or may not have been able to have been prevented, but what was just a big a tragedy was the establishment’s response to the crisis in their inability to think outside the box, literally the pine box. What are we to learn from this work? That we need to spend less time blaming and more time problem solving. Thank you Anne for taking the time to write it. I hope it becomes the accompanying textbook for a university level course on the history of Labrador.

We All Expected to Die is available from https://www.hss.mun.ca/iserbooks.

© Judy Parsons 2019 (excepting the book cover which I borrowed from Iserbooks.

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