Book Review: The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

The Shipping News, published in 1993, is a personal evolution story about Quoyle, who transforms from a downtrodden big oaf to a content, well-regarded man. It took awhile to get used to the writing style and I didn’t care for the first part of the book, but I ended up enjoying this novel.

I read The Shipping News as part of the 2020 Thoughtful Reading Challenge. August’s challenge was to read a book set in a cold climate. The Shipping News’s Newfoundland setting certainly fit the bill and periodically made me forget it’s 90+ degrees outside!


The novel begins with discouraging scenes about our hero, Quoyle. He was brought up to think he was worthless and lived the first part of his life living up to these low expectations. While living in New York, he stumbles into an on-again-off-again newspaper job. Although he isn’t a very successful journalist, he does have one gift – people openly tell their stories to him because he’s a good listener.

Also in the early part of the book, Quoyle stumbles into marriage with Petal, a lousy, no-good cheat who breaks Quoyle’s heart. The marriage ends catastrophically, but it produced two good things – Quoyle’s daughters, Bunny and Sunshine. Quoyle’s devotion to them is the first real sign there is more to Quoyle than a huge chin and a hulking body.

That’s why I didn’t care for the first part of the book. Quoyle is portrayed as little more than a sluggish, simple-minded animal – maybe a walrus or a manatee.

In retrospect, I see that the author represented him this way so that his eventual transformation would be more obvious and powerful. Under normal circumstances, I may have quit reading the book early on, but felt compelled by the reading challenge to soldier on. And I’m glad I did!

Quoyle’s redemption begins when his aunt suggests Quoyle and his two daughters move back to the long-abandoned family home in Newfoundland. Surprisingly, he’s able to land a job at the local weekly newspaper, the Grammy Bird, so they head north to start their new lives. The Gammy Bird is staffed with misfits (Quoyle found his people!) who produce a paper with strong tabloid tendencies. Quoyle is assigned to cover car crashes and news of which ships are in port. He really hits his stride while telling stories of unique ships and their crews.

St. John’s, Newfoundland. Source: Pixabay

Quoyle and his family find acceptance and friendship in their new home. Everyone begins to thrive, especially Quoyle, who turns out to be capable and multidimensional. He even finds love, once he figures out love isn’t supposed to be painful and obsessive. Redemption and belonging, at last.

Now let’s talk about the writing. Annie Proulx is a fantastic storyteller and she was able to showcase this skill with the stories other characters share with Quoyle (remember, he’s a good listener and people tell him everything). She also makes Newfoundland come alive with her descriptions of the weather and the sea. And her ability to develop characters is superb. I also like that she uses obscure words that my Kindle Reader dictionary didn’t recognize – ruvid, sumpy, roky, peckled, and craquelured, for example.

However, her writing style is unique and it was distracting at first. She often doesn’t use traditional sentence structure. Instead, it’s like reading a movie script writer setting the stage for the current scene. Here’s an example: “She was alone back there, the stunted trees pressing at the foot of the rock. A smell of resin and salt. Behind the house a ledge. A freshet plunged into a hole.” It’s actually a pretty efficient way to describe something and I got used to it after a while.

I really liked The Shipping News, especially its uplifting themes, likable characters, and great storytelling. But I’ll take a hard pass on visiting Newfoundland in the winter or ever embarking on a long sea journey!

Did you read a book set in a cold climate this month? Please share in the comments.

Reminder – September’s challenge is to read a fiction or nonfiction book set during World War II. Here are some recommendations:

All the Light We Cannot See
The Secret of Santa Vittoria
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Happy reading!

9 thoughts on “Book Review: The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

  1. The three WW2 books you suggested—the first and the third are terrific books that are on my favorites list. I have heard the middle one is also good but have not read it.

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  2. I read this book a long time ago and remember liking it. After your excellent review, it has prompted me to get it for my Kindle and reread. Thank you. Joanne Runyon

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Strange thing is that I own a copy of The Shipping News and I’ve never gotten around to reading it! Perhaps it’s time? But I’d forgotten about it, and located a different chilly book for this month.

    I read Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, which was based on true events around the last woman executed in Iceland in just under two hundred years ago. I’ve been to Iceland, but didn’t get to explore it, nor did I know much of the history. However, I could somewhat imagine the crofts and farms and sea, since I know the chill of the wind that roams a land with few trees, having been to the northern isles of Scotland. It’s a bleak but beautiful book. I didn’t expect to be as drawn into the story as I was, especially knowing it would unlikely for the main character to survive (I don’t consider that a spoiler with a book like this), but I’d often imagined how hard life must have been on such farms in that time. I hadn’t thought about how crimes might be punished or how very intimate such a closed-in community would be, especially when the unexpected happens. It could be a hard read for those who prefer humor and happy endings, but it’s an excellent book for those who enjoy symbolism, which this book has throughout. I’ll be looking for Hannah Kent’s writing again.

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  4. I really liked The Shipping News. As you describe, Proulx’s writing style was a challenge at first. Very stark, succinct, and direct. But after reading how she describes the weather and the seas of Newfoundland, the writing really seemed to fit. I think that was my favorite part of the book – how her description of the weather and seas made me feel. It was a perfect read to transport me away from the actual temperatures outside.

    I really enjoyed the story but must admit, I wasn’t real clear on the “resurrection” towards the end. I should probably dwell upon it a bit longer but hey, I’m not really that complex. Quoyle and the aunt were both great characters. Interesting that he was so likable but really didn’t say much. There really is something to be said for great listeners.

    The book had a feeling of foreboding for me – didn’t think things would end well for Quoyle and it would involve the ocean and his boat. Again, a testament to Proulx’s writing that the novel didn’t turn out as i expected.

    I have read a couple of other books by Michael Crummy who also portrays the people and weather of Newfoundland in a similar way. I’m intrigued and now want to go for a visit – but in the summer of course…

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  5. I read The Shipping News as part of a Book Club decades ago – thanks for a great reminder of a very fine story. As a writer – more now, than then – I love the idea of writing as an instrument of redemption! And your walrus picture made me laugh – that’s exactly how I pictured Quoyle early in the book – hah!

    I’ve become more interested in Newfoundland since seeing the musical Come From Away, which portrays a group of very interesting and caring characters the week after 9/11. With Broadway shows closed for the time being, I highly recommend the cast album – which pretty much tells the story!

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