I acquired Saint Pierre and Miquelon by William F. Rannie as a library discard. It is the fourth edition from 1972, which had been supplemented by new photos as well as some major rewrites. It could have used a thorough proofread as well, as it was full of typos. Aside from its age when it was withdrawn–by then it was over thirty years old–it was discarded because the entire block of pages was coming apart from the binding. This book may have survived the past two decades just sitting on my bookshelf yet the past three days of reading and transporting this book around only put more wear and tear on it.
I enjoyed reading this history of the islands, and it being over fifty years old meant that even the most recent news was history by now. What I found most difficult to understand however was the author’s explanation of the role the islands played during World War II. I did not know the status of any French overseas territory after the Nazis marched into France and Rannie did not do a good job explaining what had happened here. I read the entire wartime chapter three times, twice in succession and for a third time after I did my own research on St. Pierre and Miquelon during WWII. I was able to fill in the blanks, because there was a lot that the author did not write about which left me puzzled after my first two readings.
The vast majority of the islands’ population, 90%, lives on St. Pierre, the smaller island to the southeast. As for Miquelon, the name applies only to the northern part of the larger island, as it was once separated from the island to its south, Langlade. The two became connected via a lengthy but narrow sandbar:
“Now connecting the island with Miquelon is the great sandy isthmus known as the Dune of Langlade. Formed into its present shape by the action of sea currents, it began to appear above the ocean level some 200 years ago, aided by the wrecks of ships that trapped the sand. Today the strip is seven miles in length and between 800 feet and two miles in width. Tourists are taken for jeep rides along its length. The low central part of the isthmus is often completely covered by waves during summer and winter storms.”
During the time of Prohibition, the islands were a major centre of smuggling. Fishing “was pushed into a poor second place” when islanders realized they could earn more money by coming to the aid of thirsty Americans.
I enjoyed Rannie’s island observances, some of which were quite witty, and I deem it worthy to share the most memorable passages below:
“Miquelon is a little backwater in the stream of life. Cut off from most of the outside world, its people live quietly and peaceably. Few visitors come to the village beyond some tourists in summer and the occasional Newfoundlander picking up some tax-free goods and alcohol at the store. The people enjoy a minimum of material comforts and lead an existence that depends almost entirely on the men being able to catch and sell enough cod to provide from one season to the next. This is not possible these days, and were it not for the out-of-work benefits provided by the government it is doubtful if the fishing economy would support the village with even the barest necessities of life.”
“Presence of the motor car and scooter gives Saint Pierre its most distinctive and remembered sound–the morning-till-night ‘peep’ of horns that all drivers use with vigor at every intersection, as they circulate in what appears to be endless fashion through the network of narrow streets. To the visitor it seems that the right of way belongs to the driver with the heaviest hand on the horn; true or not, the sound still is the one most likely to be remembered as characteristic of Saint Pierre.”
“For travellers by plane, the transition from the typically North American city of Sydney, Nova Scotia, to the harbour of Saint Pierre–with its quaint town nestling on a hill, its winding streets, its gendarmes and douaniers in uniform, its lively French voices, its cafes–the transition is so sudden and unexpected that one is left with the impression of having indeed crossed the ocean, without being able to explain logically how the miracle was performed.”
“When the news leaked out that a shipment of the French Charolais cattle was being readied for transport to the islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, agricultural officials in both Ottawa and Washington reacted as if France were conspiring to establish another Cuba on America’s doorstep.”
“Mark all mail ‘Via Sydney, N.S.’, as the Canadian postal service has the annoying habit of transmitting mail addressed to Saint Pierre to various other designations of approximately similar names in the Province of Quebec.”
A book over fifty years old is very likely to contain information now obsolete. Thus I do not know what the current situation is regarding the quarantine of cattle and the total ban on livestock from Europe, nor the state of the postal system or the fishery. This can be expected when one chooses an old book to read about a place for the first time, yet I did appreciate the historic context. I would like to learn more about St. Pierre and Miquelon–probably something written more recently–especially since I plan to visit these islands the next time I go to Newfoundland. Maybe I will pick up such a book when I get there.