Cape Breton history, served funnyHalifax Chronicle-Herald, By JODI DeLONG
A few weeks ago I had an email from Douglas Arthur Brown, well-known Nova Scotian author and owner of Boularderie Island Press. He had just published a novel, The Promised Land: A Novel of Cape Breton, by musician, songwriter and author Bill Conall. Would I be interested in reading it and possibly reviewing it?
Without knowing the author or his work, I said yes for one simple reason. If Douglas Arthur Brown, author of the Thomas Raddall prize for fiction for his breathtaking novel Quintet, thought enough of this book to publish it, I knew I would enjoy it. And I was right — and so was Brown to publish the novel.
Cape Breton has welcomed many settlers from many lands to its brooding hills and green valleys over its long and colourful history. Conall’s story begins in 1970, when a small group of innocent young hippies decides to move from Central Canada to Cape Breton, part of that wave of dreamers who yearned to go “back to the land.”
This group had no skills, no money and no ideas about what they would encounter. Several would only stay a year or two before disillusionment would set in, along with homesickness, and they’d find their way back to Ontario. Some would fit in, find love and a future, developing jobs, raising children, losing friends to age and illness or occasionally that need to go down the road to somewhere else.
Forty years after that initial wave of young idealists arrived, a newly minted doctor, up to her ears in debt from her schooling, crosses the causeway to take up a job and a life in a Baddeck medical clinic. Our hippies are now well into middle age, and those who stayed are as much a part of the community as anyone born and raised on Cape Breton. Can Dr. Ellen Coulter make a home and a life for herself here, too?
Author Bill Conall’s first novel, The Rock in the Water, was shortlisted for the 2010 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. It’s easy to see why: he has a deft touch with humour, usually quite subtle, sometimes pointed but also tender. His author’s interview on Boularderie Island Press’s website is delightfully funny, and he has offered writing workshops called Humour in Everything.
He has a fine way with prose, too, that reminds me of a less serious Alistair MacLeod, and it is obvious that he, a native of Ontario, loves his adopted land as deeply as do his characters.
Reading The Promised Land was like sipping little bits of Cape Breton history while reading about people I’d met myself while exploring the island on summer jaunts in years past. The novel reads more like a short story cycle to me — a collection of chapters, or stories, that are loosely connected but also can stand alone on their own merits, with only a few essential threads weaving through the entire collection.
There are chapters in The Promised Land that reduced me to hiccups of laughter, including Holy Water about a group of middle-aged and older United Church Women members who took a notion to go skinny-dipping after one wife made up lemonade using not the bottled spring water she thought her husband kept in the fridge, but rather pure vodka disguised as spring water.
There are chapters that made me choke up, such as Wake Me at Home, where an elderly Bostonian uncle, come to visit his niece Victoria (one of those original hippies) and her husband Calvin (a native Cape Bretoner) after his wife died suddenly, learns all about the art of waking a person at home — and learns how to come to grips with his own loss and grief.
The individual chapters are rather like those young hippies, as Conall describes them: “Like small droplets of water that join to form a stream or a river or an ocean, together they became something more than the sum of their parts.” This is delicious summer reading, available as a print book or for your e-reader.
Conall’s “The Promised Land” experiences Cape Breton in vignettes
Frank Macdonald, The Inverness Oran
May 2 marks the release of “The Promised land: a novel of Cape Breton” by North Shore writer Bill Conall, a tale that spans decades of discovery along the St. Anne’s Bay coast, told with Conall’s gift for sensitive humour and cultural insight.
Through a series of vignettes Conall relates not so much the unfolding of a story as the unfolding of a time.
The time is 1970, marking the arrival of a group of seven ‘hippies’ to Cape Breton’s North Shore. Bereft of anything but a vision of creating a special place for themselves, they bring neither money nor skills to the centuries-old challenges of making ends meet along the North Shore. They borrow an unused farm which they christen Sunny Hope Farm, and begin stumbling their way into understanding how the land works, how the neighbours view them, while trying to ready themselves ahead of winter in the hundred-year-old unfurnished farmhouse.
Shortly after settling in, commune members begin to find boxes of food, dishes and other kitchen necessities on the doorstep, while suddenly along the roadside, mattresses and bedframes, bookcases and toasters, kettles and pots and pans and tools appear, apparently discarded for a journey to the dump, but clearly destined for the destitute farmhouse.
The ‘hippies’ aren’t oblivious to the sudden discarding by their neighbours of just about everything they need to make a house a home.
Still, money is in short supply and so is work, so when one of the newcomers, Brother Blues (a.k.a. Frank) overhears in a Wreck Cove store that Long Sandy MacRae’s untimely stroke has left lobster fisherman Jackie Anderson short a deck hand with more than half a season to go, Frank applies, is hired, the job itself an immersion course in which he must learn to sink or swim in the employ of a skipper whose “reaction on seeing the applicant for Long Sandy’s job came up a bit short of overjoyed.”
The rest of the commune’s members find their way into friendships and relationships with neighbours.
Overwhelmed by the kindness, the newcomers want to show their appreciation, and so throw a house party, more commonly known among the local population as a ‘ceilidh,’ and what a ceilidh it becomes. Afraid that perhaps no one will come, the party-throwers are assured by a neighbour, Emmaline, that “I don’t think there’ll be many between Jersey Cove and Smokey that won’t be here. Everybody’s heard about you people and they’ll be coming for a look.”
And they came from all across Northern Cape Breton “by foot, by horse and buggy; more in motorized transportation….A gathering this size hadn’t been seen in the neighbourhood since the departure of the Ellen Lewis, taking the last load of Cape Breton emigrants to New Zealand in 1859.”
It is a ceilidh filled with antics and dancing and fiddles and food and a Mountie stuffing himself with magical brownies, and children watching, and keeping within the cultural context of what often happened at such gatherings; “Linda was making her tea rounds when she overheard an older woman talking to a man who was apparently her son. He looked to be just over six feet tall and was – in local parlance – build like a brink outhouse.
“Shemus, has ye had yer fight yet?,” the woman asked.
“No, Mom,” the man replied, “not yet.”
“Well,” she said to him, “go and start something; we have to be going soon.”
The party became known down through the following years as the “Hippies’ Ceilidh.”
Conall’s story takes the reader to this point in the hippies’ first seasons in Cape Breton.
The next part of The Promised Land fast-forwards to 2012 and the arrival in Baddeck of Dr. Ellen Margaret Coulter, beginning her first practice in that village.
Again, Conall takes the reader, through a series of related vignettes, into Victoria County, particularly Baddeck and its way north, where the reader encounters with ever-present humour some of the characters whose much younger presence peopled the build-up to the Hippies’ Ceilidh.
But this is another time, a contemporary time, none the worse off for lack of characters as Dr. Coulter tries to find her way through the oddities and charms of a rural practice so vastly different from her medical residence experience in a large hospital.
And with this segment of The Promised Land Bill Conall leaves enough openings, enough dangling unresolved “what happened?” for readers to rightfully anticipate that there’s more to come as the writer explores the present.
Bill Conall’s first book, “The Rock in the Water” was short-listed for the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour. “The Promised Land” shows a similar if not more successful promise.
by Mona Anderson, The Victoria Standard
The Promised Land, a new book from Bill Conall, is a novel of Cape Breton. It’s not a history lesson. This book is about people, and it’s about community, and it’s a reflection of the dreams of the hundreds of people who have come to Cape Breton over the years, indeed over the past several centuries. It’s a book full of stories from the heart.
With a sleight of hand that borders on magical, Bill mixes history, fact, story, and humour in his own unique style. A distinctive characteristic of Bill’s writing is to make each chapter a short story in its own right. But then the characters take on a life of their own wandering in and out of each other’s stories like friends and neighbours wander in and out of each other’s houses, characters with wonderful names like Malcolm Angus Joe Maggie Morrison, and Gummer MacInnes. You will laugh. You won’t be able to help yourself.But you may also find you have a lump in your throat before you’re done.
The Promised Land spans about forty years in all, opening in 1970 as a group of young hippies make their way to Cape Breton in an ancient van named Methuselah. Their dream of living off the land comes to fruition when their leader, a stalwart young woman named Victoria, charms the socks off an unsuspecting Cape Bretoner named CamFourth, winning the motley crew the privilege of living and working on what comes to be known as Sunny Hope Farm. The book is filled with stories like the Loch Broom, a lobster boat with a cantankerous skipper, and hippie Frank, complete with pony tail and pink back pack, who learns the art of lobster fishing and earns the respect of his captain. You’ll learn a bit about the original pioneers who settled Cape Breton, those who stayed on, and those who left, to find a new home in New Zealand.
Then we jump forward to 2012,picking up our friends at a later time of life, learn about their marriages, their children, their successes and misadventures, including a plan for a select group of youngsters from the Baddeck Academy to become exchange students with a group of likewise youngsters from New Zealand, all descendants of the original pioneers. We also meet the new doctor in Baddeck and get to know some of the local characters as she settles into her first ever practice. The Promised Land houses a ceilidh of course, and a home wake, and everything in between. This wonderful book takes us full circle.
The writing feels effortless, the humour is joyful, the characters are so real you’ll feel like you know them first hand.And while all but one of his characters are fictitious, Bill has engendered them with the essence of the Cape Breton spirit, that which makes the people of the Cape so peculiar and so very special at the same time. The Promised Land is more than a promise; it’s the full cupboard of life.
Bill’s first book, The Rock in the Water, released in 2010, has been honoured as a finalist by the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour competition. It’s a bundle of stories from Quadra Island on the west coast of Canada, an island not unlike Cape Breton. When asked how Quadra Island compares to Cape Breton Bill said, “Well, the mountains are bigger, but the people are about the same size.”
“The Rock in the Water”
By Kate Oland, The Victoria Standard
I love a well-made crazy quilt. Unlike most quilts, which are prized for their perfect symmetry and well-matched colours, the crazy quilt is an unlikely mixture of scraps stitched together in lively and unexpected ways. A silken triangle of grandmother’s wedding gown snuggles next to a square of Uncle John’s flannel work shirt; a snippet of ribbon adorns the seam between a bit of faded apron and a swatch of souvenir tea towel from Florida.
A crazy quilt shouldn’t work. All those crazy colours, textures, shapes and sizes should be at war with one another. But a good crazy quilt is a wonder – it tells you endless stories, it stirs your memories, it’s quirky enough to make you laugh, but so beautiful it makes your heart skip a beat.
If “The Rock in the Water”, by Cape Breton author Bill Conall (Hidden Brook Press, 2009) were a quilt, it would be the crazy kind. Peopled with characters as diverse as anything in grandmother’s scrap bag, the novel, set on British Columbia’s Quadra Island, draws the reader effortlessly into their lives, their loves, their loss.
There are life-long residents, like the crusty and malodorous old bachelor Dave Bassett and go-to guy Cat Munson who, with hopeless sailor “Muffy” Hardcastle, form a trio locally knows as The Disreputables. There are the First Nations residents whose history flows through the Island’s story like a tide. There are the newcomers, like aging hippie Sparkle Orange and retired flight sergeant Arnold Tisdale, who are mysteriously drawn to Quadra and who quickly become part of its fabric. Throw in some hormonal adolescents, a cantankerous goat, a dual-speed Boston Bull Terrier, a Famous Person, and an ex-moose, and you begin to glimpse a wee corner of Bill Conall’s Quadra.
Conall himself compares the art of building characters to quilting – an unlikely analogy, perhaps, for a former long-haul truck driver and wood cutter. Still, it doesn’t take a long conversation with Conall to realize that his own life has been an artfully pieced-together tapestry of experiences, and one doesn’t doubt that, somewhere along the road, he might have tried his hand at quilting.
Discouraged from writing in his teens by an older, wiser, nineteen-year-old friend who convinced him that writing would require years of slogging at university, Bill enrolled instead in the School of Life and set aside his writing dreams for over 30 years. During those decades, he traveled cross country, living in different communities and absorbing their rhythms. Trucking gave him miles and miles of opportunity to observe, and years in which to collect the images of landscapes and people that would eventually find their way to paper.
His natural storytelling instincts came out in music. An accomplished song-writer and singer, Bill found that music opened doors and gave him a creative outlet. Although he lived on Quadra Island for less than a year, Bill says that music allowed him to go deep in a short time.
Pair that ability to sink deep into a community’s heart, with Conall’s keep observation skills and understanding of human nature, and you begin to understand the art underlying “The Rock in the Water”.
Adept at stitching together a good tale, Conall blends the most unlikely elements apparently seamlessly. He capably sets us in the place, using delicate hues to depict the Island’s natural beauty. He weaves relationships as warm and familiar as the cloth of a well-worn housecoat. Best of all, “The Rock in the Water” frequently leaves the reader in stitches.
And, like a crazy quilt, it probably shouldn’t work. How in the world could a dueling moose, revenge through socks, an underground revolution, and a spectacularly interrupted shower co-exist with a package in a plain brown wrapper, a vengeful goat, and a couple of ancient trucks? Furthermore, how can all of that sit side-by-side with the subtle complexity of a years-long marriage, the heartbreak of adolescence, an almost wordless love story and the joy of living in a small community?
The threads that bind this tale are, in fact, the threads that bind the best communities. On Bill Conall’s Quadra, there is respect for tradition, and an embracing of diversity. There is the knowledge of the past, and a weather eye to the future. There is an understanding of the need for privacy – and enough nosiness to ensure that nobody is neglected.
People are free to make their own mistakes, but there are natural consequences – especially when those mistakes infringe on the lives of community members.
Bill Conall tells his tale with great humour, unflinching honesty, and gentle empathy for the failings and foibles of his characters. The result is a complex and subtle pattern; a rich, colourful, and utterly believable tale of island community life that will feel like home, no matter where you’re from. “The Rock in the Water” feels like settling down in a favourite chair, with a cup of hot tea, and an old quilt warm around your shoulders.
Thirteen Ways From Sunday
As presents go, there’s much to be said for big box of assorted chocolates. There’s a deep pleasure in admiring the elegant packaging, unwrapping it slowly and savouring – one by one – the delectable morsels inside.
The anthology is the result of a challenge issued by Writers’ Institute director Douglas Arthur Brown to thirteen of his workshop participants. “I not only wanted to publish an anthology of their work, but to engage the group in all aspects of publication,” Brown states.
Each writer submitted several pieces of work for consideration by the group. Participants narrowed down the submissions and took responsibility for editing one or two pieces by another writer. The result, Thirteen Ways From Sunday, is a fine representation of Cape Breton writing talent.
And a talented group it is. The contributors include prize-winning authors, and nominees for awards like the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, the CBC Radio One National Poetry Face-Off, the Crime Writers’ Association (UK) Dagger Awards, Canada Writes, and the Commonwealth Short Story Competition.
Readers interested in the writing process will appreciate the inclusion of short essays, describing each author’s writing journey. These are a bit like the “map” you find in every box of chocolates – interesting, if you like to know more about what you’re going to ingest, but not necessary if you’d rather just sink your teeth into the good stuff.
As for the chocolates themselves? Well, everyone will have a favourite. Readers will laugh out loud at Tarbot author Bill Conall’s hilarious tale, The Incredible Flight of Gopher Hamilton, and find themselves reaching for a tissue during his Smooth Sailing. Baddeck author Mona Anderson plunges readers into a world of fantasy in Trapeze, and explores the bonds of friendship in The Good Thief.
If you’re looking for a gift for you favourite book lover, I recommend this volume. And if you really want to be generous, there’s nothing like reading a great book while nibbling on some excellent chocolate!