________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 14 . . . . March 2, 2007


A Sky Black with Crows.

Alice Walsh.
Calgary, AB: Red Deer Press, 2006.
252 pp., pbk., $12.95.
ISBN 0-88995-368-6.

Grades 6-10 / Ages 11-15.

Review by Darleen Golke.

*** /4



Then, without warning, there was a fluttering of wings overhead, and the sky turned black.

"Crows," Etta said. "Must be a big storm on the way."

There were thousands. The air was alive with their woeful cries. They had come inland from the water seeking shelter behind rocks and in the crevices of the cliffs. No sooner had they arrived than a sudden wind came up. The ocean rose and swelled in black swooping waves. Dark clouds loomed above them. Drops of rain splattered Katie's bare legs, making her shiver. "C-mon," she told Etta. "We better get the fish in before it all spoils." She glanced anxiously toward the ocean, knowing that her father, along with other men and boys, were still out there. By the time they got back to their huts, rain was pelting down. Women and children moved quickly, grabbing fish from flakes and rocks. Long before the last fish was stored away, the girls were soaked, their hair plastered against their heads. Katie felt chilled to the bone.

From there they stood, they could see the tiny boats struggling to get back to land. Waves broke in a fury against the rocks. Only a few fishermen had made it safely to shore. Katie said a prayer for the safe return of her own father and for those who were still out on the tossing waves.


The Andrews family, Papa, Mama, 13-year-old Katie, six-year-old Ruth, and 13-month-old Hannah, journeys by sea from their home in Fathom Harbour, Newfoundland, to Nellie's Tickle, Labrador, for the May to October fishing season, one of many "freighter" families who lack their own boats and have to be freighted to the Labrador coast. Papa spends long hours on the water every day leaving his family in their summer hut, a simple abode with crudely fashioned furnishings. He works within the truck system, a credit scheme in which "merchants advanced credit" to fishermen "on salt, twine, nets, clothing and other supplies, then claimed the fisherman's catch at the end of the season." Many hard working fishermen, like Papa, end the season more in debt than they begin. A neighbouring fisherman insists, "Someday we'll be free from this mercantile system... makin' us slaves." However, for Papa, that future would never come; he fails to return after the fierce September 1913 storm from which the crows fled.

     Mama refuses to accept his loss and insists on remaining in Labrador after all the other freighter families return to Newfoundland in October, insisting Papa will return. Inevitably the brutal weather brings illness. Katie devotedly nurses her mother and sisters until she, herself, succumbs, awakening in St. Anthony's Hospital to learn Mama is dead, Ruth is recovering, but Hannah is missing. Dr. Wilfred Grenfell, the legendary physician who dedicated his talents to providing medical care to the people of Labrador establishing hospitals and traveling on his hospital ship to the isolated communities in inlets, tickles, and bays along the Labrador coast, had rescued the family and installed them in hospital. Having promised her mother she would keep the family together, Katie bears her sorrow and loss, stoically resolving to find Hannah no matter the cost.

      By November 1913, Katie and Ruth join other children at the orphanage Grenfell established in St. Anthony. An avid reader of Dickens, Katie reacts initially with horror at living in an orphanage, but she quickly adjusts, especially in continuing her education toward her goal of becoming a nurse. However, she still aches to find Hannah, and, when she sees a newspaper photograph of Hannah with visitors who had come to Nellie's Tickle, she decides to head to St. Johns where they live. Before she can embark upon the journey, Matt, a fellow Newfoundlander and romantic interest, learns the family who adopted Hannah has moved to Halifax. Providentially, the nurse who befriended Katie in hospital has moved to Halifax, and she invites Katie to come live with her to finish her education and train as a nurse. By July 1914, Katie leaves Ruth to be cared for at the orphanage, goes to Halifax, enrolls in school, and searches for Hannah. She finally discovers that her friend, Etta, a "livyer," a permanent resident of Labrador, had come to Halifax with the Abbott family, and, when Mrs. Abbott tired of the novelty of a child, Etta had taken Hannah and returned to Labrador. In July 1915, Hannah returns to Labrador, works at the Carney Bay nursing station, reclaims Ruth from the orphanage, and finally, after almost losing her life undertaking a dangerous journey by dogsled the following April, finds Hannah and reunites her little family.

      Structurally, the novel begins and ends in April 1916, with the intervening chapters providing the main plot. Walsh paints a compelling portrait of the demanding and harsh conditions faced by people living in the outports of Newfoundland and coastal Labrador during the early 20th century. The significance of Grenfell's work among the needy "livyers" and "freighters" scattered along the coast of Labrador is a vital component in the novel with only peripheral mention of his increasing politicizing and diminishing involvement with the day-to-day operations of his missions after the establishment of the International Grenfell Association, an organization founded in 1912 that continued until being "transformed to the Grenfell Regional Health Services Board" in 1981 to serve the southern coast of Labrador and the northern spit of Newfoundland.

      The conveniences of city life Katie encounters in Halifax underscore the Spartan conditions of coastal life; yet, like the housekeeper at the orphanage, who "wouldn't leave me country for anyt'ing," many Newfoundlanders refuse to leave "their" country. Walsh details the impact of World War I's outbreak on families with young men marching off to join the battles, and she neatly sums up a typical attitude: "Don't know what England's ever done for we people that we should sacrifice our sons and husbands." Katie's dogged determination to reunite her surviving family governs her decisions and actions in Labrador, Newfoundland, and Halifax.

      Walsh spends more time telling the reader about Katie's character and courage than allowing actions and words to reveal her sterling attributes. Nevertheless, many young readers will sympathize with Katie's plight and rejoice when things conveniently work out well, and they will gain valuable insights into the history and culture of early 20th century Newfoundland and Labrador. Little details of life enhance the atmosphere and breathe life into the setting - Katie and her friend wistfully pouring over the colourful pages of the Sears Roebuck catalogue, girls being taken out of school and sent to work, the Savannah sparrows signaling changing seasons, "Sandy Claws" delivering gifts at Christmas, Halifax landmarks like The Citadel, the agony of families whose loved ones face death daily in the trenches of Europe.

      Dialogue terms like "the Labrador" appear consistently, but examples of dialect, "yeh," "yer," and "yous" and the dropping of "h" from words or the addition of "s" to verbs, occur inconsistently. Some terms indigenous to the area are explained, but others are scattered through the prose under the assumption that readers should know them. A glossary would have been helpful for unexplained idiomatic words and phrases. At the conclusion of the novel, Walsh provides a very "Short History of the Grenfell Mission."

      Awarded the 2005 Anne Connor Brimer Children's Literature Prize for Pomiuk: Prince of the North, freelance writer Walsh has published one nonfiction adult and four children's books as well as numerous articles and short stories. Born in Newfoundland, she now resides and writes in Nova Scotia, but her historical themes and passionate writing clearly demonstrate how highly she regards the history and culture of her home province.


Darleen Golke writes from her home in Abbotsford, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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