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.
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: