Rockbound by Frank Parker Day is a “rediscovered” novel from 1928. Reprinted only for the second time in 1973, yet not achieving widespread acclaim until 2005, this hidden gem took thus almost eight decades to capture the attention of Canada from coast to coast. When my library system singled out this novel as a “Rave and Fave” (a term we use for focussing attention on specific novels or works of nonfiction for a brief period, then introducing new titles) I was interested. Rockbound bills itself as “the classic novel of Nova Scotia’s South Shore”. Since my beloved is from Nova Scotia I always read something from down east before or after a trip I make with him to see the in-laws. I do this to get me in the maritime mood. Rockbound was my choice prior to our upcoming trip.
Not since “…And Ladies of the Club” have I read a novel that has given me such pleasure. I will be raving about Rockbound for months to come. Day captures the hard fishing life on a small Nova Scotia island with an accuracy that could only have been acquired from being there. Day was a native Nova Scotian and paid exquisite attention to the dialect of the fishermen of the South Shore. He reproduces the speech of the islanders and, unlike many phonetic dialectical transcriptions which I find difficult to read in print (but not a problem to read aloud), the Germanic-based dialect flows along without pulling me back to parse what it is that people are saying. For example, when David Jung, the protagonist, sails to Rockbound island, he asks his great-uncle Uriah to work with him on the fishing boats:
“An’ what might ye be wantin’?” said the old man, the king of Rockbound.
“I wants fur to be yur sharesman,” answered David.
“Us works here on Rockbound.”
“I knows how to work.”
“Knows how to work an’ brung up on de Outposts!” jeered Uriah. “Us has half a day’s work done ‘fore de Outposters rub de sleep out o’ dere eyes, ain’t it!”
“I knows how to work,” repeated the boy stubbornly.
“Where’s yur gear an’ clothes at?”
“I’se got all my gear an’ clothes on me,” said David, grinning down at his buttonless shirt, ragged trousers, and bare, horny feet, “but I owns yon dory: I salvaged her from de sea an’ beat de man what tried to steal her from me.”
The language in the narrative could just as easily have been written in 2011. Aside from the occasional “never the less” (when compound words were still written comprised of individual words), the novel has a contemporary flow and I could not believe as I read its 328 pages that it was written in 1928. Day writes a story that feels like one of those tales you cuddle up with your cousins to hear an old uncle tell. I felt so captivated by the story of David’s life and struggles on Rockbound island that it took me back to the days of my childhood when I had stories read to me.
Life on an isolated small island gave its leader, or “king” Uriah, as well as its inhabitants, certain feelings of autonomy and liberty. Day writes about the general feelings of sexual laxity on the island, and how no one was scandalized by premarital sex or even “love children” (i.e., children born out of wedlock). Women on the island were raised to believe that they served their men, both in the kitchen and in the bedroom.
I was touched by the lonely, yearning feelings shared by the women of the island. The women whose husbands are out at sea every day, in rough water and dismal weather, risking their lives as a matter of course:
“Rockbound women study how to be of use to their husbands. They work, for there is no one to hire to do the work that somehow is naturally expected of them and which seems right and proper to themselves. They rear their children, then their houses, milk cows, feed chickens, hoe the gardens, help with the hay, and when necessary give a hand in the fish house. It is no uncommon sight to see a couple of babies sleeping in an old sail on top of the fish puncheons as the mothers split fish. But in addition to this work they are always watching from the windows. As they go from duty to duty, they peer from upstairs windows for the boats. Trust them, they know every boat, every patch upon the brown sails, the peculiar chug of every engine, the curve of each stem, the sheer, the strip of colour beneath the gunwale. Each watches for the return of her man.”
The funniest parts of Rockbound were about the ghosts or “haunts” that bedevil lonely (and often drunk) lighthouse keepers. Day had me laughing out loud as two fishermen misunderstand the meaning behind a certain ghostly verb:
“So de preacher he yells, ‘No, let’s exercise him by prayer an’ de power o’ de Lord.’
“Den Israel Slaughenwhite says, ‘Us don’t want to exercise no ghost, us wants to git rid o’ him; he’s gettin’ exercise enough trailing round de Sanford roads an’ fields.’
“Den de preacher, he begin to explain what dis here exercisin’ really meant, but jus’ at dat very moment dat audacious ghos’ goes whang, whang, whang, wid a big timber agin de back o’ de schoolhouse. He damn nigh bust in de rear end, dat time. Dat settled dat, de preacher was finished, an’ Israel got de vote all round to send fur de ghos’ ketcher.”
Rockbound made the island it is named after come alive with real people and real language. Day wrote about the times of his day and thus provides a realistic account of the daily drudgery that kept fishermen and their families occupied from before sunrise till well past sunset. Island rivalries, shipwrecks, sly trickery, insanity caused by island birds and shotgun weddings are all covered in the story and I could not put this book down. I hope somehow to find his other novels from the twenties and thirties.