Sunday, August 17, 2014

Review: Le Petit Nord by Anne Grenfell and Katie Spalding

le petit nordOriginal Publication Date: 1920

Genre: ??? (See my review)

Topics: Newfoundland, travel, orphans, wily missionaries,






Review by : Chrisbookarama

Le Petit Nord is a collection of letters written by an unknown narrator to her British friend Joan during her year as missionary in St Anthony, Newfoundland.

Long before airplanes and the Trans-Canada Highway, travel to the northern parts of Newfoundland was a long and arduous journey. The narrator first sails into St John’s and from there takes a train to Run By Guess as a little diversion before her heading north. The trip does not go well, as soon as she steps outside she is attacked by mosquitos and “the roadbed was not constructed on the principles laid down by the Romans.” This is her first experience on “the Rock.”

After her short vacation, the lady heads to Come By Chance and her journey begins in earnest as she boards a steamer for St Anthony. The little ship avoids ice floes and storms (by the way it’s now the end of June). Though she finds the scenery beautiful, she can’t get used to “the language of the people.” They do not say “How are you?” but “How’s da fish by’?”

When she finally lands in St Anthony, one of her first duties is to feed thirty-six orphaned children with one herring, a feat to put Jesus to shame. By this time, she’s learned not only is the pantry empty but she’s lost her luggage during the trip. She has nothing but it’s still more than what these children have. Many were found in isolated homes where the parents had died or disappeared, often long before the children were discovered; they were dirty, starving, and frightened. Unsurprisingly, the children are difficult and have developmental issues. She loves them all in her own way. She is firm with them but kind. She has lots stories of their shenanigans for Joan!

Speaking of Joan, she must have insulted Newfoundland in a letter, because  the lady takes her to task: “I want to violently controvert your disparaging remarks about this "insignificant little island."” She, in a short time, has come to love St Anthony and its people. They have no school, and the closest hospital is in St John’s. The poverty is extreme but:

When I look about me and see this poverty, the ignorance born of lack of opportunity, the suffering, the dirt, and degradation which are in so large a measure no fault of these poor folk, I am overwhelmed at the wealth of opportunities. Here at least every talent one has to offer counts for double what it would at home.

She greatly admires the women. When a road was needed to be built and the men were away fishing,  they chopped a path through the wilderness for it. In her letters, she speaks of characters like the kitchen maids Senath and Tryphena, a crewman of the ship The Northern Light she calls The Prophet (Prophet of Doom), and a Feminist named Elmira, who “had the courage of her convictions, and did not marry.” Her letters contain the tales and beliefs of the people, including stories of sled dogs, polar bears, and a creature called Yoho.

As for the lady herself, she has many adventures. She witnesses the Aurora Borealis and hears the sounds they make. She weathers a variety of storms, and takes a ‘cruise’ by dog sled. During her final days as missionary, she travels around the other ports of Le Petit Nord onboard The Northern Light and sees puffins, icebergs, whales, and dolphins. Everything you’d expect to find in a Newfoundland and Labrador Travel brochure!

When I first read Le Petit Nord, I was under the impression that these were actual letters written by Anne Grenfell.* However, upon going over the story again for my review, I started to get the feeling something else was going on. First of all, who is Katie Spalding? What does she have to do with this? Anne Grenfell was the American wife of Dr Wilfred Grenfell, the founder of the St Anthony Mission. The narrator never mentions her own name nor does she mention the year. The narrator is English not American, so she can’t be Anne who was born in Chicago. I did some internet digging and found this thesis in Collections Canada that points out that Katie Spalding was the secretary for the Grenfell Association. Both she and Anne created "a collection of pseudo-letters” that was Le Petit Nord. They were writing propaganda to get money out of people in England for the Mission. Ruh-roh! I had fallen for it hook, line and sinker. I am scandalized! I just thought Anne was a really great letter writer.

Of course, even if it is propaganda, it’s entertaining propaganda. The foreword claims that all these events happened, only the names have been changed. Maybe these things did happen, or maybe they didn’t, but even of they did probably not to one person. I found the whole book delightful nonetheless, even if the narrator is Lady Von Fakerson. It’s funny and full of adventure. Any damage it did was well before my reading of it. Wily missionaries.

So, what is the genre? Fictionalized memoir? A epistolary novel?

This was a Librivox recording narrated by a real Newfoundlander, Sean Michael Hogan. Please listen to it, it’s great!

Download Le Petit Nord by Anne Grenfell and Katie Spalding at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

*I had used the name Anne in this review before my discovery, I then changed it to ‘the narrator” or “the lady.”