I’ve been thinking about Frank Parker Day quite a bit today. This morning I was sitting a The Art Can cafe in Canning chatting with Ken Schwartz about theatre, fiction and life. I’m very excited that Two Planks and a Passion Theatre Co. has a musical adaptation of Rockbound in the works. (click on Two Planks to read more about it.)For those of you who may not know, the 1928 Frank Parker Day novel was the last book standing in the 2005 edition of CBC Radio’s Canada Reads literary face-off.
Although the novel was well recieved the US and most of Canada, some members of the community of Ironbound, NS (which was the basis for the setting of Rockbound), were less than pleased with FPD’s depiction of their village. The controversy brewed to the point where the author was compelled to speak out and on May 18, 1929 Day offered a public apology to the residents of Ironbound. (from the Dalhousie archives web page devoted to FPD.) I’m currently trying to find an exact transcript of his apology…so if anyone happens to know where I can get my hands on it, please let me know.
This is especially interesting to me right now since two of the questions I’m often asked about The Birth House are:
Why did you choose to set the novel in a real location (specifically the place where you live)?
To me, Scots Bay, NS is a unique and magical place, both in its landscape and in its people. It has a captivating, rich history and I felt that I would have done this place and the people who live here a disservice by giving it another name. That said, history and location were simply places for me to step off and begin my story. While I felt it important to stay true to certain pieces if history – The Halifax Explosion, the tradition of shipbuilding in the Bay, the true names of the soldiers lost during WWI, the work of women’s lives in the early 20th century, the struggles all women faced in gaining the right to have a say in what happened to their bodies – I also felt it equally important to create characters of fiction, characters with lives, dreams, beliefs, talents, and faults all their own.
As FPD said in his author’s note to Rockbound: No reference is intended in this book to any actual character or definite district. The story is entirely fictitious.
I came from away and landed in a house with more stories than I could ever write. Scots Bay afforded me a perfect setting and like other novelists before me, when a landmark needed to be moved or changed for the sake of the story, I did so. (Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story) The truth is simple…a midwife once lived here, Mrs. E. Rebecca Steele. She took the women of the community in and cared for them. An act of courage in a time when everything around her was changing. Beyond that, Rebecca’s biography ends and my imagined tale of Dora Rare begins.
Johnston considered carefully the different ways of establishing ‘fictional/historical plausibility’ in the novel. Re-reading Don Delillo’s novel Libra, he observed how “Delillo gave himself the freedom to invent scenes, incidents, conversations as long as they seemed plausible within the fictional world that he created.” He also considered Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, where, in spite of the magic realism, India still gains independence in 1948, and political figures are elected or assassinated under the same circumstances as their real-life counterparts. He decided he would not change or omit anything that was publicly known. “I would fill in the historical record in a way that could have been true, and flesh out and dramatize events that, though publicly known, were not recorded in detail. Most importantly, I would invent for Smallwood a lover/nemesis (Sheilagh Fielding) who could have existed (but didn’t) and wove her and Smallwood’s story into the history of Newfoundland. This would be my plausibility contract with the reader.”
Which brings me to the second question:
How have the present-day residents of Scots Bay reacted to the book?
This question was first put to me the week the book was released. It was something I hadn’t even considered since my affection for this community is so strong and my hope from the very start was that any person with a history here would, upon reading the book, see my efforts to show the goodness, strength, and tenacity that is within the heart of any true community. Overwhelmingly the response has been warm and supportive and my hopes have been fulfilled… but, as with any artistic endeavour, there’s bound to be a few people who feel The Birth House is not what they expected. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. That’s what makes life interesting.
I never set out to write a history of Scots Bay. There’s a perfectly fine, slim, portable History of Scotts Bay by Abram E. Jess that’s been updated over the years and available through the WI. Local newspaper columnist Pat Martin has also been collecting local history and I believe her columns have been gathered in to bound editions the past couple of years. What I have written is a novel and although inspired by history I can’t help but feel a novel should not be held to the constraints of the historical record (as accurate or inaccurate as written or even verbal ‘history’ might be.)I find it interesting to note that I spelled the name of the setting for my novel Scots Bay. Some would argue that the place at the end of hiway 358 is “Scott’s Bay.” In that regard, clearly, I have written a work of fiction. 😉
What I sought to do in writing the The Birth House was akin to what FPD said he was trying to accomplish as an author
In terms of writing a novel, Frank Parker Day has been quoted as follows: “Surely the function of the artist is not to depict photographically but to help us interpret the beauty of life as it may be, to present romance, adventure, idealism, and to reveal the nobility lying latent in every human breast.” (from cbc canada reads teacher’s reading guide)
Peace to your soul, Frank…
but should a novelist apologize for his/her art?