The Shipping News & Other Awesome Books to Help You Understand Newfoundland

I still struggle to express what it means to be a Newfoundlander and how the conflicting emotions of “home” shape my life. It’s difficult. I’ve become as much a part of this province as it has become a part of me. But even my most eloquent words can’t sum it all up, unlike those belonging to these folks.

So if you really want to understand, try these books. Plus they’re just good darn reads.

The Shipping News – Annie Proulx

The Shipping News book cover

Probably the most famous book about Newfoundland, not even written by a Newfoundlander. But damn, Proulx is good. This story is about Quoyle, a man who moves from New York to a small fishing village in Newfoundland. He then starts writing for The Shipping News, and makes a new name for himself. It’s a great read mostly because it shows an outsider’s transition to island life, something that would have been much harder years ago but is still indicative of modern rural life.

Buy The Shipping News here.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams – Wayne Johnston

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams book cover - One of my favorite Newfoundland books!

Johnston is one of my all-time favourite authors, and I’m a huge fan of historical fiction. This book is a portrait of Newfoundland’s first premier, Joey Smallwood. He’s the man responsible for leading Newfoundland to Canadian Confederation, resulting in some disastrous results like the resettlement program I mentioned earlier. I found myself alternating between admiration over Joey’s character, and wanting to strangle him.

My favourite quote, as Joey leaves Newfoundland for the first time:

“I exhausted myself trying to take it all in, noting every little variation and departure from how things were supposed to be. My notion of home and everything in it as ideal, archetypal, was being overthrown. It was as though the definitions of all the words in my vocabulary were expanding at once…Cape Breton was much like Newfoundland, yet everything seemed slightly off. That I was able to detect such subtle differences made me realize how circumscribed my life had been, how little of the world I had seen.”

Nothing could ever sum up my conflicting feelings about travel as well as that paragraph, the excitement but loneliness that comes with the realization of understanding your own insignificance in the world.

Buy The Colony of Unrequited Dreams: A Novel here.

Bay of Spirits – Farley Mowat

Bay of Spirits book cover

In 1957, Farley Mowat begun exploring the outport communities of the Southwest coast…the area where I grew up in particular. He bought a tiny fishing schooner dubbed the Happy Adventure, and embarked on the kind of journey I can only dream of for the time being. The whole coast, dotted with hidden coves and private, sandy beaches, all open for exploration.

From the description: “Mowat creates an unforgettable portrait of the last of the outport people and their way of life that had survived for centuries but was now passing forever.”

Buy Bay of Spirits: A Love Story (Globe and Mail Best Books) here.

Random Passage – Bernice Morgan

Random Passage book cover

I actually just visited the film set in Cape Random (yep, real name) for the first time this weekend, and was reminded of this great series by Morgan. This story is about the Andrews family who leave England to start fresh in a new country in the earliest years of Newfoundland’s settlement. Unfortunately they’re met with the epic struggle of living in a barren, inhospitable land entirely cut off from civilization (don’t worry, we fare much better these days). I still remember the characters well, and they serve as a great portrait of the kind of people who were hardy enough (or silly?) to settle here in the first place.

Buy Random Passage here.

Death on the Ice – Cassie Brown

Death on the Ice book cover

This book was pretty well the bane of every high school kid’s existence, but I’m just now appreciating its worth. This is a true story about the 1914 sealing disaster where 132 men were stranded on the ice in a blizzard causing the eventual gruesome death of most. Why is this important? It’s a testament to a century-old tradition now being fought by radical animal rights movements. I don’t necessarily support the hunt, nor do I oppose it. But I absolutely cannot get behind a group whose tactics involve uploading YouTube videos of the Newfoundland flag being burned. Give me an argument worth discussing, and I’ll listen. This book is worth a read to get educated, and form some real opinions.

Buy Death On The Ice: The Great Newfoundland Sealing Disaster Of 1914 here.

Obviously, I haven’t read them all and I’m always looking for more material. Recommend some literature to me, and I’ll check them out once I’m over my obsession with Anne of Green Gables.

  • May 03 2011

    Are there lots of pictures? I’m still working my way up to chapter books, Candice.
    I did see The Shipping News, though (moving pictures work, too). It was quite a while ago, but I remember liking it. :)

    • May 09 2011

      Hahaha, well, Bay of Spirits has some photos…black and white, though.

  • May 03 2011

    I haven’t read the Farlwy Mowat one or Death on The Ice – must put on my to read list.

    I loved The Colony of Unrequited Dreams.
    Nice list.

    • May 09 2011

      Thanks, Leigh! Isn’t Johnston amazing? Def pick up Bay of Spirits, it’s so dreamy.

  • May 03 2011

    You must be Canada’s most patriotic citizen and the absolute greatest promotor of Newfoundland. They are very fortunate to have you. I hope they will realize this some day soon.

    • May 09 2011

      I think they are starting to, finally. :) Thanks Sabina, means a lot to me!

  • May 04 2011

    haven’t read any of these (though i’ve seen “the shipping news”). do you own any of ’em? can i borrow ’em? y’know, if I ever finish that last book you lent me… :S
    (ps – i love that you love anne! I KNEW YOU WOULD!)

    • May 09 2011

      Hells yeah, I’ve got a bunch of Johnston over here AND Mowat! Check ’em out.

  • May 04 2011

    I got “Death On Ice” before we travelled to Newfoundland, as well as these:

    Newfoundland and Labrador Book of Musts: The 101 Places Every NLer MUST See

    As Near To Heaven By Sea (a history of Newfoundland and Labrador– didn’t get too far through this one but may finish it when I get back home)

    This Marvellous Terrible Place: Images of Newfoundland and Labrador
    “With wonderful insights into the people of Newfoundland the authors use powerful images and the words of the Newfoundlanders themselves to tell the stories of the place. Alternately powerful and fun, this book is a must for anyone wishing to understand the lives of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador and their place in history and Canada.”…..written by a couple of non-Newfoundlanders, VERY good

    Tilting: House Launching, Slide Hauling, Potato Trenching, and other Tales from a Newfoundland Fishing Village (haven’t finished this one yet either but am enjoying it)

    I really like reading books about a place before I go there.

    • May 09 2011

      Ooh, hadn’t even heard of those, other than “This Marvellous Terrible Place.” Love it, thanks!

  • May 04 2011

    OH, and my sister-in-law just lent me the Wayne Johnston book too; she raved about it.

  • May 06 2011

    Screw the books, just go to Newfoundland. I went there randomly and had a really awesome time.

  • May 06 2011

    I’ve only ever heard of The Shipping News from that list of books. I love reading, I’ll have to give some of those novels a read.

  • May 16 2011

    Some great choices there. But just for the sake of argument I’m going to say The Chronicles of Uncle Mose should be in there ahead of Death on the Ice or Bay of Spirits.

  • November 26 2014

    Hi Candice, read a novel some years back which included the fictional character Mary Bucket. Cannot find the book now by googling various combos ie her name, Newfoundland, fiction etc. Do you know of the book title and author?

    • December 01 2014

      Hey Mary, do you perhaps mean Mary Bundle? She’s a character from Random Passage!

      • December 01 2014

        Mary Bundle, yes that’s it. Thanks so much, Candice.

  • November 08 2017
    Wander van der Kolk

    For all who visit this site 6 years after through Google, other worth reads are:

    Sweetland – Michael Crummey
    The Colony of Unrequited Dreams – Wayne Johnston
    Disappeared: Stories from the Coast of Newfoundland – Eric Coulborne

    All great books (available from Amazon) which makes you understand this great island (a bit).

    • November 12 2017

      The Colony of Unrequited is mentioned here — it’s my all-time fave! And I recently read Sweetland. SO GOOD. Michael Crummey is fantastic.

      I’ve never read Disappeared, though. Adding to the list. :)

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