Growing up in Atlantic Canada you know the routine. Big announcements by government officials of plans for some sort of economic miracle. Oil drilling off the coast. Natural gas drilling off the coast. New jobs! New money! A new era of economic prosperity for the area.
Beyond the headlines of the economy come the much tougher stories. The men trapped in the coal mines. The cancer rates in coal mining community. The oil drilling jobs with big pay, balanced by the big risk. Sure, there are jobs and money to be had, but at what cost. For an area with an economy based largely on natural resources, high paying blue collar jobs are too good to be true. Ask a lobster fisherman out on the ocean in the middle of an Atlantic storm. The ocean and the earth extract their own costs.
That’s a world that I, in many ways, left behind almost 15 years ago when I moved south to Boston and later to London.
Just over a year ago I walked into a bookstore in Guildford, England and was browsing through a display of Booker Prize nominated books. I picked up one after another until I turned over February by Lisa Moore.
While I have only vague memories of the Ocean Ranger disaster, I do remember the inquiry and many other similar events in Atlantic Canada. An oil rig that ‘couldn’t sink’ that sank in a bad Atlantic storm. A crew lost in the bitter ocean. Families left behind to rebuild their lives.
It was a disorienting moment to have all this flood my head in the middle of a bookstore in a genteel community on the other side of the world.
I put the book down and didn’t end up picking it up to read until a few months ago. I was on vacation in Nova Scotia and it seemed like the right place to read a book like this.
I can’t say that February is the most uplifting book I’ve ever read, but given the subject that can hardly be expected. Helen is a widow of the Ocean Ranger disaster. She and her husband Cal lived a relatively normal Newfoundland life. They married, had a family and faced the tough economic realities of the region. When oil jobs came to town, the gamble proved alluring. High pay for relatively unskilled work. Sure it would be hard work, but when the weeks on the rig were done, Cal could be with his family. Like so many others, Helen and Cal took the risk.
The book is set in the present, as Helen struggles with the realities of her children’s lives. Her son John has gotten a woman pregnant and is bringing her home. Helen flashes back through the years to everything that led up to Cal’s decision to go out on the Ocean Ranger and to her struggles to raise four children alone. But mostly, she fixates on the night the Ocean Ranger went down. In an attempt to somehow be with him in death, she lives and relives every detail of what she knows and imagines of that night. The horror her husband lived and died in.
These moves back and forward through history are very disorienting as a reader, but give you a good understanding of the mental world Helen lives in. A life of the ‘what ifs’ that could have prevented Cal from going on the rig. A life of anger that she was left to deal with the aftermath. A life almost frozen in time out in the cold Atlantic night.
As difficult as it was, emotionally, to read, I wanted to finish the book to try to get some closure on Helen’s life. Her present (and past) had been so hard, I kept hoping for her future.
I’m sure there are many many women in Atlantic Canada who have lived this book. Each of the disaster headlines has many families who continue to live the story long after the media departs. I don’t pretend to know their struggles, but I can only imagine that Moore has done a very good job at bringing to life a character who had her life flung at her and did her best to sort it out.