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Posts Tagged ‘Kevin Major

I decided to read No Man’s Land by Kevin Major, because of its importance in Newfoundland history. It is about the disastrous attack on the first day of the Battle at Somme in World War I, when two-hundred and seventy-two young Newfoundland men lost their lives. When picking this historical novel, I knew I ran some risks. First, although it is studied by Newfoundland high school students as part of their curriculum, No Man’s Land is an adult novel. A second reason I ran a risk is that war stories generally don’t interest me. Unfortunately, I have to concur with the Newfoundland students who complain that nothing happens in No Man’s Land until chapter twenty-four. Actually, the book as a whole bored me.

There were scattered moments I did enjoy, such as the budding relationship between main character Haywood and French girl Marie Louise; 2nd Lieutenant Hayward is shy and so requires several encounters to muster the courage to stop and talk to her. During one walk, he stares indirectly at her, then smiles and looks away, before he finally steps forward and kisses her on the neck. There is another cute scene, where Hayward surprises Marie Louise at her home, but is himself surprised to find her mother there. After buying bread from Marie Louise’s mom he awkwardly smiles and waves at Marie Louise, before escaping back to his quarters. Some Newfoundland students couldn’t care less about the relationship, but I appreciated its gentle growth. Of course, truth be told, there is nothing exceptionally new about Major’s portrayal of this romantic relationship. For that reason, I needed No Man’s Land to have more to it than romance. You’d expect it would, given that at heart it’s a war story.

Royal Newfoundland Regiment

Royal Newfoundland Regiment (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And it does. Major writes often about the camaraderie between other villagers and within the troops, but sadly here is where my interest waxed and waned. Eight-year-old Lucien takes a shine to Hayward and tries to learn English from him. He revels in the moment when Hayward allows him to examine an unloaded pistol. Light-hearted moments like these aside, I preferred the serious ones. The chatting and jesting which occurred in many chapters did so little to develop the characters that I often felt as if at an aimless social gathering where I knew no one. As for the serious moments, sometimes they’re depicted through Hayward’s memories of home: “He recalled his mother’s bread, and how he would cut it still warm and spread it with molasses.” Other times, they’re revealed through conversations. After a visit to the horse stables, Hayward and brash fellow-officer Clarke banter about their fears of the upcoming battle. The sentiment which ends the scene is particularly poignant. The sun pours down on the two and “For a long time they lay on their stomachs and gloried in it, putting off as long as possible the ride back to where they had to be.” Alas, these scenes are too infrequent. Because of how minimalistic Major is in what he shares about the backgrounds, desires, and conflicts of the young men of the Newfoundland Regiment, No Man’s Land often held only slightly more interest to me than a reference book.

Yet I enjoyed Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut and Code Talker by Joseph Bruchac. What’s the difference? Well, both of these war novels featured strong characters about whose fates I cared. Now certainly authors of historical novels are more limited than other writers by facts; in that sense Vonnegut had it easier than Major and Bruchac in that, having served in World War II, he could draw on personal experiences. As for Bruchac, he combined the stories of several real people to create his opinionated Ned Begay. However, Hayward is too calm and collected. The characters in No Man’s Land are supposedly based on real soldiers who wrote letters home and so, perhaps, Major stuck more closely to the facts. While this might work for some readers, it ultimately did not work for me. Slaughterhouse Five and Code Talker are also about more than war itself, one being a satire and the other being about racism. No Man’s Land includes romance, friendship, and battles, but never goes beyond them to make a statement. Again, for some readers this straightforward approach might be enough. For me, a reason to pick a novel over a reference book is that the novel affords me an opportunity to step in someone else’s shoes. This did not happen with No Man’s Land. Consequently it was a disappointing read. And so I’ll return to Major’s books for young people.

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

How would you rate this book?

There are a handful of Newfoundland authors whose names I heard over and over while growing up. Kevin Major is one of them. Some of his novels such as his first book Hold Fast, I discovered years ago as a teenager. Hold Fast was published in 1978 and just this summer has been turned into a movie. You can follow its progress on Facebook. Other novels such as No Man’s Land, which I’ll review this weekend, my siblings introduced to me when they read them as part of their high school curriculum. This week, I had the great pleasure of actually interviewing Kevin Major. 

Allison: You grew up in Stephenville and have since lived in Eastport and St. John’s. How did these places shape you as an author?

Kevin: Growing up in Stephenville didn’t amount to a typical Newfoundland upbringing. My parents had come from outport Newfoundland to settle there. We were freshly Canadian, and we were living next door to a very large U.S. Air Force Base. Let’s just say I came under a lot of different influences. I have yet to explore Stephenville as a fictional setting, but I think it will come. Eastport was an entirely different experience. Rural life was new to me and certainly was a stimulus for my early books, such as Hold Fast.

Allison: What are some of your favorite Newfoundland traditions? Have you ever encountered mummers?

Kevin: Bonfire Night. Gathering capelin on a beach. Jigging for squid. And, not only have I encountered mummers, I have been one on a few occasions.

Allison: What is the most unusual Newfoundland food you have eaten? Where can one buy the best fish meal?

Kevin: I love what people on the Eastport Peninsula called “scrad”, which is lightly salted cod, dried for just a couple of days. That and bakeapple tarts with a dollop of can cream.

Allison: After graduating from university, you traveled widely abroad. What did you most miss about Newfoundland? What brought you back?

Kevin: Newfoundland to me is family and landscape. Both drew me back and held me here. That and a sense of humour in the face of hard times.

Allison: A lot of people ultimately leave Newfoundland for work. What keeps you here?

Kevin: Writers have the luxury of living where they want. I saw no reason to be near the centre of publishing in Canada, i.e. Toronto. I preferred to maintain a distance. I like being in the midst of what I am writing about.

Allison: Why did you write first for young people? Why have you started recently writing for adults?

English: Eastport Beach, Eastport Peninsula, C...

English: Eastport Beach, Eastport Peninsula, Central Newfoundland, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kevin: My initial interest in writing for young people came from my years as a teacher in outport Newfoundland. It came from seeing that none of the novels available for my students to read were set in any place familiar to them, or spoke to them in their own voice.

I think I explored all the themes I wanted to explore in writing about young people. It was time to move on. I have actually moved in two directions, books for younger kids, and books for adults.

Allison: How did you balance the unpredictable schedule of being a substitute with trying to produce regular writing?

Kevin: It was a good balance. I was working essentially in one school. So there weren’t the pressures of a new school with a new collection of unknown faces each day. I am disciplined with my time, an essential trait as a writer.

Allison: I admire how you have embraced your position as a leading author of Newfoundland-based books. Have you ever been tempted to expand your scope?

Kevin: The best of universal writing is also regional. The themes are broad, but are grounded firmly in a local setting. Generally, I see no reason to choose other settings. There is all too much to write about here.

Allison: Congrats on Hold Fast being made into a movie! My understanding is that production of this film just wrapped up. I read some details on your blog. Are there any other behind-the-scenes impressions you can share with my readers? When and where will the movie be released? I’d love to see it!

Kevin: It’s been very exciting to see Hold Fast in production as a movie. It was shot in various places around Newfoundland (Tors Cove, Bauline, Gros Morne, etc.), so visually it will be wonderful. I am thrilled that almost all the cast and crew are from Newfoundland. And to get such fine young actors in the two boys at the core of the story (after a tireless search across the province) is especially thrilling. The movie will shine. Those young men will touch your heart.

Allison: Your newest book New Under the Sun was rejected many times. After having so many books published, were you surprised to have to search awhile to find a publisher? How did you keep faith in it? What encouragement would you offer to aspiring authors?

Kevin: Nothing surprises me about publishers anymore. (That was not the first struggle I had finding a publisher when I’ve written something off the track of what I have done before.) Belief in oneself is an absolute necessity as a writer. If you are an aspiring author, hold to that belief. You might have to pay the bills with another job, but hold strong, and hopefully your work will land in the lap of an editor who understands you.

Allison: You attended at least a few literary festivals in Newfoundland. What do you feel are the benefits of them?

Kevin: They bring authors and readers together. They celebrate the written word. They give everyone something to feel good about. They are places that raise the writing spirit.

Allison: What’s next?

Kevin: Write, write, rewrite, rewrite. And in the end, a new adult historical novel. Set in Newfoundland … and New York.

Kevin Major’s earliest novels typically portray the main character, always a teenage boy, in conflict with his family. Often the boy lives in a fishing village, which allowed Major to introduce Newfoundland culture to readers. In later books, such as Blood Red Ochre, Major began to directly infuse aspects of Newfoundland history, sometimes more successfully than others. The dilemma in doing such is whether one can expose readers to a world different from their own without confusing them. In Blood Red Ochre, despite some failings in style and one character portrayal, Major does a reasonable job of intertwining a story of Newfoundland’s indigenous Beothuk into a story about David, who falls for a new girl and fights with his step-dad.

As you can tell from the plot summary, if not for the Beothuk twist, Major is treading on familiar ground. Yet why not, when he does such an excellent job of portraying family conflicts and capturing teen boy emotions? I like the scene where David talks about how he and his mom rarely talk about school: “The school could burn to the ground, she joked, and she’d have to find out from someone else.” David then reflects on how once he had never thought of his mom in any other role than that of a parent, but now he is beginning to see that there is more to her life, including her reasons for not getting married to his father. In another great scene, David visits his dad for the first time. Often times, this kind of moment is portrayed in other media as highly dramatic, but Major shows it as awkward and almost mundane. To me, this seems more realistic, which is an adjective I would generally use to describe Major’s portrayal of relationships. Sometimes authors are so bent on constructing the plot in such a logical way that they forget life and people are not always rational. Major instead creates a scene where David cuts short a conversation with a friend for no reason other than a “rotten mood”. The last example I’ll mention is a scene in which David’s step-dad talks to David after David has visited his birth dad. David is surprised that the “old man” wants to settle their differences. “He never thought it would come to that.” And so now David has to rethink their relationship.

English: Imaginary picture of a beothuk camp, ...

English: Imaginary picture of a beothuk camp, drawn by Major John Cartwright. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alternating chapters focus on Dauoodaset, a fictional headstrong teenage Beothuk boy in love with Shanawdithit, the actual last known surviving Beothuk, who died in 1829 in her late twenties of tuberculosis. I suspect the reviewers (who seemed to be mostly Newfoundland students) were thinking mostly of these chapters when they faulted Blood Red Ochre for its boring plot. For some reason, despite telling David’s tale in third-person, Major decided to narrate Dauoodaset’s tale in first-person. I’m guessing because such a perspective would be more foreign to Major, the style is sometimes stilted and regrettably dull. And yet there were a few shining moments. When Dauoodaset returns to camp with two kills, “There has not been fresh meat in our camp for many days” and so “My father greets me with much smiling and even my mother loses her face of sorrow.” A hunter-thanking song is sung. Everyone is happy, but then the suggestion is made to play a dice game. That might have also been a time of merriment, except that Dauoodaset takes advantage of the moment to challenge the band leader for his arrows. The chapters which describe the bold move on Dauoodaset’s part to journey to the salt water to find food for the starving and weak band are taut with tension, as are those when white men shoot at and pursue Dauoodaset for cutting their fishing nets, which Dauoodaset interprets as robbing the Beothuk of food.

Interestingly, while negative reviews faulted Major most for his boring plot and surprise twist, I felt most off put by the portrayal of Nancy. David’s first impression of her is that she is different, foreign, and a bit mysterious. Major isn’t the first author, and probably won’t be the last, to introduce a character who is from a different time and place. However, perhaps because he doesn’t outright admit to this until near the end but rather just teases readers with clues about her eccentric behavior, Nancy never feels real. I wonder if perhaps her story might have been more successful if Major hadn’t tried to save it for a surprise. As for those clues, there are her strange responses to David’s questions: “I have learned not to waste time” and “I don’t have the time to spend with you if you’re interested in the marks” and “You keep your secrets and I’ll keep mine.” There are also her intensely negative reactions to horror movies and seeing a display of Beothuk at the museum. Finally, there is how weird her house is, being almost of freezing temperatures on the first floor and sauna-like atmosphere on the second floor. It’s unfortunate that she doesn’t feel more real, because Major does a wonderful job at portraying David’s dating jitters. I also love how true to adolescent relationships this description is: “When they reached the theater, she was still going on about what they might find and how impressed Dalton would be with their assignments. All David could think of was the two of them in a tent.”

As with Gaffer, which I reviewed earlier this week, Blood Red Ochre represents a creative way to convey historical events. To me, Blood Red Ochre will be far more accessible to average readers. Despite some flaws, it’s an engaging story. I’m eager to read more of Major’s books, to see what else I can learn about Newfoundland.

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

How would you rate this book?

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?


When Hold Fast was first published in 1978, it was hailed as a landmark of young adult writing and established Kevin Major as one of the best Canadian writers of his generation. Only a month after Michael turns fourteen, his parents are killed in a car crash by a drunk driver. Michael grew up in an outport or a small coastal community, but moves to a city to live with his relatives. As one would expect, he is less than welcomed by his classmates. Unlike Travis in The Nine Lives of Travis Keating, Michael stands up to his bullies with mixed results. While it is also not a great surprise when he doesn’t get along with his aunt or uncle, I enjoyed the budding friendship between Michael and his cousin. After enduring physical blows from his uncle, Michael decides it is time to hit the road and is joined by his cousin on a cross-island adventure. What I liked best about Hold Fast as a Newfoundlander is the colloquial writing style and the description of many familiar places. There is much to admire about Hold Fast. It shows the full impact that the death of parents would have on a teen (or anyone), with no punches held back. The portrayal of the contradictory emotions that teenagers feel while sorting through their moral values is also incredibly real. The character of Michael has been compared to Holden Caulfield and Huckleberry Finn, both of which seem valid to me. What I most liked is how Kevin Major achieved a delicate balance in depicting the struggle of rebellious adolescents to make mature decisions.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read it.

How would you rate this book?


Image by Purely Penzance via Flickr


Published in 2003, The Journey Home by Mike McCarthy is by a relatively unknown author. David’s parents have also been killed in a car crash. In contrast to Michael, David hails from Ontario and is bounced around foster homes. He even spends time in prison. This background information is raced through within the first few chapters but is summarized best on the back cover. After his prison sentence, David makes yet another bad decision that turns him into a fugitive from the law. Stowing away on a truck, he emerges to find himself on a ferry to Newfoundland, where he has no choice but to make a new life for himself. His romance to Brenda happens overly fast. I also preferred his quiet adjustment to the island, as opposed to his dangerous encounters with smugglers. These criticisms aside, this is another good example of a coming-of-age story of a troubled teenager, with some romance and adventure to boot. What I liked best about The Journey Home as a Newfoundlander is the portrayal of a strong work ethic of the fishermen. I also appreciated the sympathy shown for adolescents who find themselves in trouble due to making stupid decisions and the conflicts which they undergo in trying to face their mistakes.

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

How would you rate this book?


Catch Me Once, Catch Me Twice is the second book I read by Janet McNaugton. Like her book for young children, this is also a historical novel. Unlike The Sweater Saltbox, it integrates many aspects of history: World War II, the blackout during that time, midwifery, and even memories of fairy encounters on the Battery. Evelyn McCallum, whose father is posted overseas in the army, moves with her mother from a happy life in an outport to the city. Up to this point, she resembles Michael in Hold Fast. She even has some of his reckless anger, using a pocketknife from her father to damage items in her grandparents’ home. Beyond this similarity, their lives are much different. Evelyn’s mother is alive and having a difficult pregnancy. Evelyn finds a close friend in a boy with a crippled leg. Together, they learn from a relative how to make wooden toys. Despite the fairy encounter, the book is a suspenseful and fascinating historical novel. What I liked best about Catch Me Once, Catch Me Twiceas a Newfoundlander is the portrayal of life in 1942. As with several of my earlier examples, I also appreciated the portrayal of complex relationships between Evelyn and her parents, and her grandparents, and even her peers. My favorite part comes near the end, when Evelyn has a chance for her heart’s desire to come true but must decide what that is and whether to take the risks involved.

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

How would you rate this book?


Image by crowdive via Flickr


By now, you may have identified some common features in the young adult books I chose: absence of parents, romance, and life in a new place. Why should A Sky Black with Crows by Alice Walsh be any different? Katie Andrews and her family spend the summer of 1913 fishing in Labrador. During a storm, her father is lost at sea. When the other fishing families return to Newfoundland for the winter, her mother refuses to give up hope that her husband will return and so insists the family stay where they are. Not too long after, the family is struck with a fever. By the time they are discovered, the mother has died. The youngest sister has also disappeared. The rest of the book is about Katie’s attempts to find her sister, but also to become a nurse. She is assisted by Matt and by other acquaintances she makes along the way. What I liked best about A Sky Black with Crows as a Newfoundlander is the portrayal of life in Labrador, along with that of the Grenfell Mission. In 1892, a young doctor by the name of Wilfred Grenfell sailed to Labrador, where he discovered a complete absence of doctors. He was so moved by the plight of the people there that he dedicated the rest of his life to their service.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read it.

How would you rate this book?

Why did it take me so long to discover Newfoundland and Labrador fiction? The lists of book recommendations that served as guides to the reading selections of my youth were naturally populated with mainstream titles. Regional books rarely made it onto these lists; unless they were such exceptional reads that they were picked up by a larger publisher. Many were not, because they represented local interests. Not until I moved away to the United States did I start feeling a need to clasp onto my unique heritage. Books represent one way for me to do this. Year by year, I am expanding my personal library with my own regional collection. I encourage you to do the same.

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