Where in Canada: Ancestral Newfoundland

July 18, 2017

In The Bosun Chair (NeWest Press) Jennifer Bowering Delisle recounts her ancestor's stories of Newfoundland life in the early twentieth century, including shipwrecks, war, and life in an outport community. A hybrid of prose poetry and family memoir, the book reflects on heritage and the ancestral Newfoundland Delisle never knew. 

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At the heart of Jennifer Bowering Delisle’s The Bosun Chair is the desire to reach through time and space to connect with the stories and lives of one’s family. The time is apparent in Delisle’s looking back to when her family lived in Newfoundland, at their livelihoods and at the schisms of war and relocation from farm to city. The space is the distance between Edmonton, where Delisle lives, and the home of her grandparents and great grandparents, Newfoundland. So the sense of place in the books feels doubly haunted, not just by time, but by sheer kilometres between Western Canada and the most easterly of Eastern Canada.

That this project is beyond difficult is apparent by the back cover copy’s last sentence: “The Bosun Chair reveals the inherent gaps in ancestral history and the drive to understand a story that can never fully be told.” This may be why Delisle draws upon so many methods to create the Newfoundland of her family’s past: poetry, prose poetry (both the author’s own and that of both her great grandmother and great grandfather), newspaper clippings, prose, transcripts, and photographs.

Through these forms, she allows the reader to know the multiplicities of Newfoundland, not just shipwrecks, of which there are two, but of a woman waiting for her husband’s return, about her life on shore: planting and harvesting, knitting and caring for the children. In The Bosun Chair, a place is not just a landscape, but is where work is done. Both kinds of work—at sea, ashore—keep the family tree alive, allowing for Delisle in the future to wonder about the predicament of her great grandfather’s ship, the Swallow, being caught in a squall, and to wonder how it must have felt waiting for a husband to return for two months longer than he was expected.

The nautical novel has a long history, back to the 18th century, but while readers got to read of The Adventures of Roderick Random by Tobias Smollett, or of Captain Ahab, less is written of those who remained at home and waited. And despite the two shipwrecks, Delisle presents other sides of Newfoundland life, including a vivid description of a game played in the harbour: "Have you ever heard of ballycater?...You might find another word in a dictionary or some book, but it was big pans of ice. And sometimes they would fill up the harbour. And we would go down and hop from one pan to the next, and as you stepped on the pans, they had a tendency to go under. And then of course there were several coming behind you, everybody’s stepping on the pans, and you had to try and get from one pan to the next without getting your feet wet. And also hoping that the next pan wouldn’t be too far away so you could hop to it."

The voices of Delisle’s relatives, transcribed, are one of the ways that Newfoundland is evoked in The Bosun Chair. Their stories act as a path to the past, as a path to place. And like the ballycater, the reader takes a leap hoping for another nearby ice pan to hop on to.



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Jennifer Bowering Delisle was born in Edmonton, Alberta, and has published poetry, fiction and non-fiction in a variety of literary magazines. She completed a PhD in English in 2008 from the University of British Columbia and has held postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Alberta and McMaster University. She is the author of The Newfoundland Diaspora: Mapping the Literature of Out-Migration. The Bosun Chair is her latest book. She currently resides in Edmonton.


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Thanks to Claire Kelly at NeWest Press for sharing The Bosun Chair with us. To explore more of Canada through literature, click here.






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