Thursday, June 26, 2008

Reader's Diary #371- Douglas Gosse: Jackytar

This book wasn't what I expected at all.

Way back in '94, I did a year of nursing school. Of the 15 males in my class, about half of us stayed in residence: one floor of Southcott Hall, a twelve story red brick building on Forest Street, St. John's. Of course, just eight people to a floor wasn't exactly profitable so about halfway through the year, the landlords secured a contract with the worker's compensation board and provided rooms to men requiring physiotherapy at the Miller Center, which was attached to our building. We weren't happy with the arrangement. No longer did we have the lounge and kitchen areas to ourselves, we had to share it with these intruders!

Truth be known, I think we were a little embarrassed to find that these injured middle-aged men were bigger partiers than us. But the loudest and hardest drinking of them all, was a man of only about 5 feet tall and who spoke in an accent even more peculiar than the rest of us. I remember asking another student who seemed to have decided that if you can't beat them, join them, what the guy's story was, and why he acted the way he did. All I got in return was another question, "What do you expect from a Jackytar?"

Well, what could I expect? I had never even heard of one! According to the Dictionary of Newfoundland English a jackytar is a Newfoundlander of mixed French and Micmac English descent. Most are from the west coast of the island, far from where I hailed from, and I was pretty unknowledgeable of either the French or the Micmacs on the island. The negative stereotyping on behalf of my classmate aside, I wanted to know more. Sadly, I didn't really dig any deeper.

Then, a couple of years ago, a friend lent me a copy of jackytar by Douglas Gosse. Fiction, yes, but underneath Gosse's profile picture it said that he had "earned several prestigious awards for the research leading to jackytar." I thought that even if I didn't enjoy the novel, I'd at least learn something about the people. Turns out the opposite happened.

On the back of the book, it is written that jackytar, "is the novel of self-development and social critique." In the foreword, Gosse writes, "I have tried to create a plausible reality that troubles readers to rethink social beliefs, customs, and practices." And, in the "author's note" (written as Alex Murphy, the novel's protagonist), he writes, "I hope you, too, may confront some of your silences and break them." I mistakenly thought the critique of society and challenged social beliefs would be about racism.

Turns out the book is mostly about homophobia. Racism, while touched upon briefly, does not seem to be a focal point and I didn't learn anything more about jackytars or their culture. Perhaps a point can be made that people are more then their labels, just as books are more than their titles. Still.

The good news is, with the exception of a few awkward parts near the end (At one point, Alexander's talk with his friend AJ about the problems with education, poverty, and counselling ends with AJ saying, "Now that I've pontificated enough." No kidding!), the novel as a whole wasn't as preachy as the admitted agenda would imply. Granted, as a male who's been in nursing school and went on to become a primary school teacher, I'm pretty open to breaking gender stereotypes anyway, and so this may have been a case of preaching to the choir. That Gosse throws homosexuality into the equation doesn't exactly challenge my already liberal views.

Perhaps not being hung-up on the politics of the book allowed me to focus instead on the story. Alexander Murphy returns home to Newfoundland to visit his critically ill mother. She dies, but before passing on, she speaks to him in French about a cassette she wants him to hear. Will it unlock the mystery of his mother's unhappiness? Will it provide some clarity to mysterious Bible passages she had marked in their family Bible?

Yes, jackytar had an agenda. No, it wasn't a cultural examination of the Jackytars. Fortunately, it had an intriguing plot, and that salvaged the book.


Allison said...

I enjoyed this review, particularly "Perhaps a point can be made that people are more then their labels, just as books are more than their titles..."

Perhaps because I'm sourcing out thesis statements these days, but I'm intrigued to read this book now.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I've never heard this term either, which I guess is not suprising.

Are you the teacher that everyone goes to for bandages now? I can certainly see that happening.

Teena in Toronto said...

I've never heard that term before.

I just finished my 15th Canadian book:

Anonymous said...

I'm not familiar with the term either. Googling it brings up the mixed ethnicities, a Canadian sailor and your blog though.

..people are more than their labels just as books are more than their titles... First impression do count & don't judge a book by its cover.

John Mutford said...

Allison: I can't tell if Gosse's title was misleading or if I was wrong for my expecations.

Barbara: Actually, this past year I started working for an airline. Surprisingly, not as flight attendant!

Teena: You just can't quit, eh?

Carrie: If you look closely at the "j" on the cover, you'll see it's written with rainbow colours. I guess there was a hint there afterall.