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Sylvanus Now

Sylvanus Now

by Donna Morrissey

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"Breathtakingly beautiful."—Alistair MacLeod


"Breathtakingly beautiful."—Alistair MacLeod

Editorial Reviews

This is a perfectly lovely novel, written in a style and language that evoke the atmosphere of Newfoundland, Canada from 1947 to the early ‘60s. When the novel begins, young Sylvanus Now is beginning to fish in the tradition of his father and ancestors in a small boat, using a jig line, bringing up each fish by the strength of his own arms. It is a hard life, but one he loves, in spite of the fact that his father and brother drowned in the sea that gave them sustenance. When Sylvanus sees a beautiful young girl at a local dance, he falls in love. Adelaide is not interested in marrying a fisherman. She had high hopes for her own future, but instead was pulled out of school to work salting fish and taking care of her mother's ever-increasing brood. With her reputation for standoffishness, she and Sylvanus make an odd pair and when three pregnancies and three dead babies occur, she becomes even more reclusive. Meanwhile, bigger and more boats, often foreign, and large fish processing plants are quickly changing their way of life. The story is beautifully written and the characters are well developed. The settings are wonderfully described and the underlying socio-economic issue is interesting and tragic. Younger YAs will probably not appreciate the many layers of the story, but older readers will. This is an excellent novel. KLIATT Codes: SA*—Exceptional book, recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2005, Norton, 326p., Ages 15 to adult.
—Nola Theiss
Library Journal
As in her noted previous novels (Kit's Law and Downhill Chance), Morrissey's latest takes place in remote coastal Newfoundland. It is the 1950s, and the fishing trade is being transformed. Sylvanus Now-a proud and stubborn fisherman whose father and older brother drowned at sea-believes that all he requires to make his life complete is to win over the melancholic and aloof Adelaide; he would build her a home away from her large and chaotic family and thus end her life of cleaning fish on the flakes. Yet he does not anticipate the threats from both the huge foreign trawlers scooping up fish from the spawning grounds and from the government, which plans to improve the lives of independent fisherman like Sylvanus by building factory-freezer plants and re-settling them in larger communities with better roads, schools, and services. The story of their precarious lives is a lesson in the economy and ecology of the fishing industry wrapped up in the colorful vernacular of a novel as fierce as it is uplifting. Recommended for all public libraries.-Barbara Love, Kingston Frontenac P.L., Ont. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A way of life is compromised and threatened, and life goes stubbornly on, in the Canadian author's third novel, following Downhill Chance (2003). Set in small villages along the Newfoundland fishing banks during the 1950s, it's the story of two families whose meager fortunes wax and wane as the business of cod-fishing is shaped by depleted resources, restrictive government policies and new technologies that render old ways obsolete (e.g., "Freezing fish is a better way of keeping them than salting. Bigger boats is a better way of catching them"). Morrissey dramatizes such changes in the experiences of the eponymous Sylvanus, hardy youngest son of a clan whose father and eldest son perished at sea, and headstrong Adelaide, the first-born in a sprawling crowd of siblings, whom their perpetually pregnant mother Florry has appointed "Addie" to care for. Dreaming of a fuller life, Addie marries doggedly devoted Sylvanus, who builds her a house, works tirelessly for her and gives her three babies, all stillborn, and buried in modest graves that the embittered Addie cannot bring herself to visit. Years pass; the families of Ragged Rock (Addie's hometown) and Cooney Arm (where the Nows reside) struggle to survive, avoid the threat of government "resettlement" and adjust to the lingering burdens of their memories and their ghosts. And Morrissey's people-stoical Sylvanus and resilient Addie (whose intimate moments and violent arguments alike throb with painful credibility), their hardbitten and longsuffering parents and relations-assume a near-mythic intensity reminiscent of Halld-r Laxness's epic portrayals of indomitable working souls. No conventional happy ending is possible, but reconciliationand acceptance are achieved, in a moving denouement that proves the truth of Florry's weary pronouncement, "If it weren't for keeping things simple, nothing would ever get done."Absorbing human drama, in Morrissey's best yet.

Product Details

Penguin Canada
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.25(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Man's Worth

Sylvanus now had just turned fourteen that morning when he burst through the school doors for summer, shoved his dory off from the calm shores of Cooney Arm, paddled through the narrow channel protecting the cove, and headed for the choppy waters of the open Atlantic. Tucked inside his pants pocket was a credit note for his confirmation suit, priced at thirty-two quintals of dried salt fish (on hold at the merchant's), and tucked around his feet were two coils of fishing twine, the end of each tightly knotted to a cod jigger.

Rowing half a mile along the rugged coastline, he anchored two stone's throws from where Pollock's Brook rushed out of a small estuary into the sea. Wrapping his fishing twine around each hand, he tossed the ends holding the jiggers overboard, their hooks more silvery than the underbelly of a herring as they sank into the sea. Rising, he planted both feet firmly on either side of his boat and began jigging: left forearm up, right forearm down; right forearm up, left forearm down. Thirty-two quintals of fish. A hundred and twelve pounds a quintal. He figured he could do it.

After scarcely five minutes of jigging, his left jigger hooked.

'Ah,' he grunted with satisfaction and, sitting back down, pulled in the fish. Ten pounds it felt. Fair size for drying and marketing. He grunted again. It was this, the immediacy of it, that fulfilled him. That even as he was twisting the jigger out of the cod's mouth, he was already tallying his own worth—unlike the hours spent over school books, studying letters and figures that made no sense.

Pulling a skinning knife out of his rubber boot, he cut the cod's throat to bleed it, cursing the gulls swooping and screaming overhead, one flapping so close he swung his knife at the yellowed eyes menacing him. Laying the fish aside, he tossed his jigger back into the sea and rose—left forearm up, right forearm down; right forearm up, left forearm down; up, down; up down—a sturdy figure in his father's black rubber pants and coat, unyielding to the rocking of his dory, his sou'wester pulled low, darkening his eyes as he faced into the sun and the gannets swooping black before its blaze as they dove into the sea a dozen feet below his boat, beaking back the caplin that were luring the cod to his jiggers.

Fourteen pounds. A day's jigging ought to land him half a quintal or more. With splitting, salting, and drying the fish on shore, it would take all three of the summer months, he figured, before he was able to dodge up to the merchant's and barter the price of the suit—for thirty-two quintal was the price he was figuring on paying, not the forty-two the merchant was asking. Perhaps he was poor at book learning, writing his numbers and letters backwards and trying the patience of his teachers and elders alike as they tried breaking him from the foolishness of his habit; but he could figure, sometimes for hours on end, about such things as how many cords of split wood to fill a twelve-by-twelve crawl space, or how long to leave a fish curing in brine, or, no doubt, how many hours it took to cut and sew a size-forty suit and how many quintals of fish to make a fair trade.

Another hook—a hard one. Real hard. Excitedly, he leaned over the side of his boat, pulled in his fishing twine, hand over hand, seeing a fathom down into the sea and the glazed eyes of a cod whose tail flicked confusedly as it was hauled from its brackish bed, up, up, up, breaking into the startling light of the sun.

'Whoa, now, who do we have here?' he asked in astonishment as he pulled the forty pounder half out of the water, the brown of its back glistening wet, its belly creamy as milk and swollen with roe. A mother-fish. Rarely would she feed off a jigger, busy as she was, bottom feeding and readying herself for spawning. Reverently, he unhooked the jigger from the mouth of the quietly struggling fish and watched the sun catch the last glimmer of her gills as she dove back into the deep, the sack of roe in her belly unscathed. He felt proud. The ocean's bounty, she was, and woe to he who desecrated the mother's womb. The gods smiled, and within the minute he was pulling another fish up from the deep, a twenty pounder, twice the normal size for a hand-jigged cod, and his heart pounded as he flipped it into his boat.

Two hours later, the twine was chafing his hands and his shoulders had begun to weaken. His father, before the sea took him (along with his eldest brother, Elikum), would've held out jigging till the tide ebbed. Come evening, he would've returned again, filling his boat for the second time that day, getting home late, late evening, working long into the night, gutting and splitting and salting his catch. And perhaps I might, too, row back out for the second tide, he thought. If I gets the morning's catch gutted and split and sitting in brine, and a good scoff of Mother's cooking filling me gut, I just might. And perhaps, by summer's end, I, too, might spend the whole day standing and jigging with nary an ache nor wish, like Father done.

Perhaps so. For now 'twas the most he could do to bleed the last fish, pull his anchor, and will his leaden arms to lift his paddles out of the water. Shoulders groaning, he rowed against a growing squall, plying harder on his paddles as he swerved back through the choppy waters that always choked the channel's narrow neck. One last long haul on his oars and he hoisted them inside, gliding toward the shoreline of Cooney Arm. Then, as he'd seen his elders do after making it through the neck in worsening weather, he rose, raising his eyes as if in salute to the wood-coated hills that cuddled the scant few houses of the arm from the wind and sea.

But Sylvanus's wasn't the salute of his elders. This morning's lop was a duck pond alongside the squalls they had survived. His was the salute of pride, for despite his having drawn ashore dozens of times before, sometimes with fifteen, maybe twenty pounds of cod for his mother's pot, today he was straddling a hundred and twenty pounds or more—a few pounds more than a quintal—from just four hours' fishing. A fisherman's catch, for sure, and to be bartered at the merchant's. And this thought cast his eyes anew upon the hills. Yet, unlike his elders', his sought more the rock gorge to his right and the thousands of fathoms of white foaming water crashing down its cut and spewing across the meadow into the embodying arms of the mother sea as she buoyed him and his bounty to shore. Water. God's blood, the elders used to say. And in his moment of pride, Sylvanus Now would've traded his last drop of red in gratitude.

Three months later, the thirty-two quintals of fish bartered and stored in the merchant's shed, he dodged home, a deep satisfaction filling his chest and the suit, carefully wrapped in brown paper, tucked under his arm. His mother, Eva, her aging hair bundled at her nape and her fading grey eyes bolstered by the black lustrous brows that she'd bequeathed to all of her boys, met him in the doorway. Proudly, he pulled the suit from its wrappings and held it before her—three sizes too big so's to allow for his last few years' growth—and announced he was quitting school and going fishing for good.

Eva sighed. His was the unsanctioned egg, the one who shuddered from her old woman's body long after the others had been born and grown, and a month after her husband and eldest had been lost to the sea. Too wearied was she to give chase when, the moment he found his legs, he was rattling doorknobs and gateposts and trotting along the beach, bawling to go out in the boat with her third eldest, Manny. And in vain were her protests when Manny, his own chin still soft with baby-down, yet his heart broader than his burly frame and sorrowing for this fatherless youngster, buttoned him inside an oilskin coat that fell below his knees, and hove him aboard his punt. Tying a length of twine with a jigger around Sylvanus's pudgy hands, he shoved off from shore, heading for the fishing grounds. Now, as Sylvanus filled her doorway, grinning foolishly over the suit he held before her, his glut of coarse, dark hair and brows exaggerating a stubbornness fossilized since birth, she merely ambled past him, pulling on her gardening gloves.

Hooking his suit to a notch below the mantel, Sylvanus left the house and sauntered down to his father's stage, untouched since the day of his drowning, and wriggled open the door. It was darkish inside and murky, the air sharp with brine. Filling his lungs, he stood, waiting, watching, as his eyes adjusted, giving shape to the bulks and bundles strewn around him.

Meet the Author

Donna Morrissey is the award-winning author of Kit’s Law and Downhill Chance, and the screenplay Clothesline Patch. She grew up in the Beaches, a small fishing port in Newfoundland, and now lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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