Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘Newfoundland authors

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.

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