In 1933, newly wedded Donald and Urla Poynter left their home up in The States and moved to St. Lawrence. Donald had been hired to oversee the fluorspar mine in the Newfoundland outport. With some uncertainty, Urla accompanied her husband to the foreign northern country.
Pretty unconventional honeymoon, eh b’ys?
Inspired by letters written by Donald and Urla, Adele Poynter — Donald’s daughter — has written a novel exploring their love story. It is not only the story of a young couple’s strengthening love but also the story of two Americans — to their own surprise — falling in love with a strange new land.
Poynter presents her novel in the form of letters exchanged mostly among family members — Urla and her family, and Donald and his.
This format makes Dancing in a Jar an epistolary novel.
Well, look ‘a me showing off.
In a previous life, in a previous century, I attended Memorial University in the times when Joey Smallwood — may his name be known forever — provided free tuition for all students. Truly, free tuition. From his own wallet, I ‘low, eh b’ys?
Silly bay-boy, believing that one day I would scribble the Great Newfoundland Novel, I registered for every novel course I was permitted to select.
My unfinished drafts of the Great Newfoundland Novel now lie withered among the chaff of many other tomes in the unharvested literary fields of my noggin.
But I remember epistolary novels.
Especially, Sammy Richardson’s friggin’ classic, Pamela.
Reading it was one of the most painful experiences of my nerdy book-boy life.
Hey, my motor stalled so I hoofed it over to Mr. Google’s house and picked though his shelves of epistolary novels to see how the format had evolved. I discovered some titles that show potential. This one in particular sounds jolly — Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging.
Full-frontal snogging!Sounds like fun, eh b’ys?
That being said, I enjoyed Dancing in a Jar. I enjoyed its epistolary structure and read with interest, and soon reached Donald’s letter to his folks on page 139: “It is Sunday afternoon and I’m enjoying a rare afternoon off.”
As if I had just drunk a cup of tea that, to imperfectly quote from page 22, “picked me up and set me down with a bang,” I was transported to another of Joey Smallwood’s “personally gifted” Institutes of Learning, a post-Confederation outport schoolhouse.
The teacher instructed a roomful of fresh-faced Canadian scholars in the complexities of friendly letter writing. The Salutation, the Greeting, was close behind us; the opening sentence lay dead ahead: “It is Sunday night and I am feeling fine, hope you are the same.”
Raise a hand if you ever began a letter with said epistolary icebreaker.
Come on, they’re more of you than that.
Frequently, in his letters to the crowd back home in New Jersey, Donald praises Urla’s willingness to fist in to her new way of life in St. Lawrence. Rightly so, Urla is proud of herself for adapting to outport life. As pleased as Chooky with her first brood of chicks, she informs her mother and father, “I have learned to turn the heel on a sock.”
Mastering that skill is no small accomplishment. No Siree.
The “old people” might say that while a man is not worth his salt unless he can hang a door, a woman is not worth her salt unless she can turn a heel.
Granny said so.
In her letter of Jan. 7, 1934, Urla describes Christmas celebrations at the Giovannini house where she and Donald board. She writes of the “grand dinner” — “two large chickens, salty navel beef, roast potatoes, pickled beets and cabbage” all topped off with a sherry trifle.
The scene reminds of similar rural scenes in Thomas Hardy novels, albeit a tad faster paced. Ol’ Tom’s characters could have used a bit of scravel and would have benefited if, like Urla rushing to finish her letter, they had to hurry to catch the mail boat.
For a short book, Poynter’s novel is chock-a-block with local colour. Scene after scene reminded me of my bay-boy youth.
Here’s one. Urla is invited to ride on a slide. In a letter to her mother she explains, “The passengers sit on a crossboard, rest their feet on the runners, the driver shouts…”
The driver probably shouts, “Got your feet up?” before he urges his horse forward.
Once upon a car ride with a couple of our granddaughters, who are immune to my pathetic wit, I shouted, “Got your feet up?” before hauling on the gearshift.
I caught their rolling eyes in the rear-view mirror as they groaned, “Pop, we’re in a car.”
Thank you for reading.
Harold Walters lives Happily Ever After in Dunville, in the only Canadian province with its own time zone. How cool is that? Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.