The Pelé Harbour for Odd Birds by Ronald Tiessen is a novel about an unnamed narrator who travels to Pelee Island in order to discover more information about a man known as Uncle Lawrence. This man upped sticks and left England to find his fortune on Pelee Island in the 1890’s, and the narrator asks around–the novel takes place in the late seventies–and finds only a few elderly people who have any memory of him. While on Pelee the narrator met its flock of “odd birds”, the sometimes quirky, lonely, interrelated mysterious bunch who called the island their home. Some of his descriptions of Pelee residents and visitors were laugh-out-loud funny, no doubt a reflection of the author’s own experiences on the island. The narrator considers a permanent move to the island and learns the hardships of a Pelee winter.
Newcomers had to be careful about spreading unflattering gossip as you never knew who might know or be related to whom. You’d find out the hard way when “suddenly one quarter of the entire island populace gives you the cold shoulder treatment”. Tiessen is a Pelee Island historian and he used his knowledge to educate the reader with tales of the island’s past, such as rum-running and smuggling under US Prohibition. I enjoyed the history of the pheasant hunt yet the islanders aren’t too keen about it–until the money from visiting hunters starts rolling in. Insular societies have their own vocabularies which are meaningless on the mainland, and Tiessen shared some unique Peleeisms, such as muffleheads for midges and marsh-wompers for fox snakes.
When Mark and I visited Pelee Island in the summer of 2020 the islanders introduced us to the tradition of waving while driving. Motorists always waved at oncoming vehicles. It was expected to wave and not doing so would be considered unthinkable. Tiessen described the tradition in great detail, outlining seven different waves and the meanings behind each:
“Feeling very good about our transaction, on our way home the talk turned to present day waving, of the greeting kind, on the island. Gierat insisted if I intended on living here, that I grasp the subtle nuances of different wave genres. Like any language, islanders’ waves were intended to impart precise meaning.
“‘For example,’ he explained, ‘there is the rapid frontal hand movement wave, with palm facing you, requiring only a flick of the wrist. The primary signal may be a bit blurred, but generally means, “I want you to see I am waving,” or possibly, “it matters that you think I like you.” Second, there is the stiff Queen Elizabeth wave, hand wagging and synchronized with the head’s movement side to side. This wave is used when you don’t recognize, nor care to recognize the other. It communicates something like, “I see me.” Or the person waving is thinking about something else altogether. The fixed frozen smile, a kind of Fozzie the Bear countenance, accompanies this wave.
“The sixth type of wave involves the forefinger alone. It is raised in a sort of mini-salute by the driver, the finger barely leaving its grasp on the steering wheel, the remainder of the hand left motionless. The wave honours the tradition of waving while expressing some reluctance, or even embarrassment about all this business of waving. In spirit it is minimalist, a kind of grunt, like saying ‘mornin’.”
I had read three prior books by Tiessen, all nonfiction, yet enjoyed this one the best. His characters were the strongest part of the book and I looked forward to each personality when he or she reentered the story. I will look into any other fiction by the author, and try to convey to him my appreciation of this particular book.