CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 21 . . . . February 2, 2018
One night, on one of the coastal steamers plying the waters of Newfoundland, a group of men sit smoking and drinking in the smokeroom. After the requisite number of drinks, they begin telling tall tales of events in the past. After many a good tale, Grampa Walcott, the oldest man there, brings out a tale from 1888 which is the most amazing one….yet.
Tara Fleming, a young freelance illustrator and graphic designer, is employed in the film and television industry in Newfoundland. She is eager to create illustrations for stories that spark her imagination. For her first book for children, she has selected a poem by Ted Russell who was a well-known storyteller and radio personality in the 1950s and '60s in Newfoundland. Russell, in his persona of Uncle Mose, told tales of a small outport known as Pigeon Inlet.
Fleming has chosen well in selecting this poem for her first children's book to illustrate. Russell's poem has rhythm, rhyme, and humour. It is not modern. It is a gentle story that pleasantly reflects a time when electronics didn't dominate the time people spent in shared transportation. A time when people on the steamer knew each other from previous trips together. A time of community. The text highlights traditional pursuits in Newfoundland and the work required to survive in an outport. While the tall tales told on the Kyle reflect serious and important work that was done, the poem presents them in a cheerful light. Fleming's illustrations perfectly reflect that tone.
Grampa Walcott's tale speaks of a year when the seasonal fisheries had failed, one after the other. The caplin run was poor, and the squid hadn't come. The people had dug clams till they were gone, even the cocks and hens, soft-shell clams usually used as bait. The story only hints that people were facing a hungry winter if things didn't change. Finally the squid arrived in such profusion that they scraped the bottom of the boat. When the boy, who became Grampa Walcott, throws in his jigger and pulls it back, the squid on the jigger is embraced by a second squid, and that one by a third and so on and so on. The Walcotts fill their boat and pass the string on to a neighbor who passes it on to another. This continues though the night until the string had traveled around the peninsula, changing the winter prospects of many communities.
Fleming's illustrations are as bright and cheerful as a sunny day. The stages, docks, and work sheds around the edge of the harbour and the houses farther up the hill are spotlessly maintained and freshly painted. The people are smiling, neatly and brightly dressed. The squid are colourful and have personality. You can feel the movement of the water as the boat crests a swell. An entirely delightful experience.
I would recommend Smokeroom on the Kyle just for the fun and pleasure of it, but it also gives a glimpse at a lifestyle now mostly gone. It provides an excellent opportunity for discussion of the differences between the past and the present or the reader's location and Newfoundland.
Smokeroom on the Kyle has a glossary of Newfoundland terms, but I wished there had been some explanation of the Kyle's role as a coastal steamer. My other small quibble is with the map on the right side of the last full two-page spread before the glossary. The map is drawn in a warm and lovely orangey brown, no doubt to contrast with the water and greenery on the left page. There are even little wavelets marked in to indicate the water; however, the central clear space, initially to my eye, looks like the water and the brown wavelets are the land. It was a little disconcerting.
After 25 years of service, Rebecca King retired from her position as the Library Support Specialist for the Halifax Regional School Board.