Allison's Book Bag

Gaffer by Kevin Major

Posted on: July 4, 2012

While on the lookout again for literature about my home province of Newfoundland, Gaffer by Kevin Major intrigued me because the major character travels through five hundred years of Newfoundland history. One reviewer criticized Gaffer as lacking plot and character, being instead all about style and form. Moreover, the reviewer considered the main character to be undeveloped and unsympathetic. A kinder reviewer suggested that readers first avail themselves of Newfoundland and Labrador history so that they might have the background to understand Gaffer. While I agree with all of these criticisms, I still found Gaffer an interesting read.

Let me first consider the style. Admittedly, some of it is overwritten. Here are just a couple of examples that made me pause: “amphibious pup in the heaving surf” and “grieving lunge of his flaccid limbs”. Yet one thing I have learned is that writing is all about balance. So, while sometimes Major could have simplified his phrases, other times he proves himself a master at description. Here is Major’s portrayal of Gaffer’s grandmother: “She was a gabby beef bucket of a woman. The lard of her upper arms jangled when she walked; her ankles inflated her shoes….” Is there any doubt that Gaffer’s grandmother is oversized? Here is how Major depicts Gaffer’s uncle’s shed: “The shed became his place of convalescence, his refuge. The smell his oxygen, the sights a balm for his wounds. He rigged up a hammock with fishnet, cushioned it with oilcloth. He ate hardtack and drank from dirty brown bottles of homebrew.” Is there any doubt how much the shed means to Gaffer? Can’t you just see it?

Next up for consideration is the main character of Gaffer. Despite the deceptive first scene which shows Gaffer as a misfit trying to deal with his dad’s death, much of the book does put the main character at a distance from other characters and ultimately Major’s readers. Gaffer never stops being angry, which might seem natural for a teenager who has lost his dad in an offshore oil rig accident, but he also seems to think himself better than everyone else except perhaps his family. In some form or another, he always acts distrustful and defiant. Initially, this off put me. When I decided to view Gaffer as a larger-than-life character, I felt more accepting of his almost constant hostility. What enabled me to view Gaffer more as a symbol than an everyday character is some of the unusual plot twists. For example, Gaffer talks to goats and cod. Given that this doesn’t happen in routine life, I allowed myself to view Major’s tale more as a fable, and at that point I began to like it.

The Beothuk tribe of Newfoundland is extinct. ...

The Beothuk tribe of Newfoundland is extinct. It is represented in museum, historical and archaeological records. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last, there is the suggestion that readers will lack the background to understand the trips back and forth through Newfoundland’s history. In all honesty, this thought is the one which most ran through my mind. Gaffer travels as far back as 1497, when supposedly John Cabot discovered Newfoundland. He drops in on the our indigenous people, the Beothuk, in 1614, and feels the agony of knowing one day they’ll face their extinction. He lingers in 1787 when fishermen were under merchant rule. He  zips ahead to 1977, when Brigette Bardott protested the seal hunt, from which thousands of Newfoundlanders used to earn their livelihood. True to the mythological form of the book, Gaffer even visits his dying cove twice in the future. In one of the most chilling chapters, Gaffer discovers his hometown has been turned into a preserve, where now former residents make their livelihood by displaying relics of an extinct community to world travelers. In a few chapters Major had even me, a native Newfoundlander, trying to decipher the historical context of events. However, I still felt his passion for Newfoundland in every page along with the outrage he seems to feel over the loss of some of Newfoundland’s more unique ways of life. Because of my obvious familiarity with Newfoundland and its history, It’s difficult for me to determine if the average reader will be able to look past the historical events to immerse themselves in a tale of a community on the verge of a collapse.

Because I suspect this will be the largest stumbling block to Gaffer, I abandoned my normal practice of not reading criticisms of a book I intend to review. To my surprise, there were very few reviews posted and most were lukewarm to negative. While I much prefer Major’s earlier novels such as Hold Fast, I still felt myself emotionally drawn into Gaffer. Newfoundlanders should read it. Everyone else, let me know what you think.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

2 Responses to "Gaffer by Kevin Major"

Like you, Allison, I found Gaffer an interesting portrayal of Newfoundland’s past, present, and future. Although I didn’t appreciate Gaffer’s conversations with goats and cod and don’t think that all Newfoundlanders should read Gaffer, I concur with your other observations on the book. I think that it could be useful in tying things together for those interested in Newfoundland history, including high school and college students.

Thanks for posting your perspective on Gaffer!

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