Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Word for Home

The title of this post happens to be the title of a book I am going to recommend for young readers who are looking for something different than the current offerings of dystopia or steampunk. It also happens to be the sentiment that best describes my relationship with the book’s setting, St. John’s, Newfoundland.

I was recently blessed with an opportunity to visit St. John’s with Daughter1. The roots on both sides of my family reach deep into the rock of this city – the oldest in North America. However, it is on my mother’s side that the history is more recent. My maternal grandmother, Little Nanny as I affectionately named her, was a bay girl. She arrived in St. John’s as a young woman to find employment, and to eventually begin a family. It sounds like a simple story, but the impact that this woman had on so many lives is anything but simple.

 My older cousin called me immediately upon my return. She needed to hear stories about down home. As the two of us grappled with the vocabulary - neither one of us able to put into words our feelings for the place; it became evident to me that here was one person who “gets” it. My cousin shares the same urgency (“longing” just doesn’t do it) to return to our ancestral home. The need to smell the sea air, hear the waves crash upon the shore, feel the rock beneath our feet, and see the closest place to heaven on earth.  I hear Little Nanny’s voice every day. But when I’m walking in her streets I feel her hand on my shoulder. She rights my moral compass and points me in the direction I need to go.

To be able to take this trip with my first-born was a dream-come-true. She is old enough to have memories of her wonderful great-grandmother, and she appreciates the significance of family history. We also both happened to be having milestone birthdays in 2013 (isn’t every year a milestone?) What could be more fitting than the two of us welcoming in the New Year in St. John’s? It was a grand time for sure, and a memory that will last a lifetime - in a Wobbly Pop kind of way!

                         On on earlier trip to Nfld - I needed to feel the earth on my bare feet.

Clark, Joan. The Word for Home. Toronto: Penguin, 2002. 286 p. (hc)

Genre: Historical Fiction

Audience: YA (teenage pregnancy)

This wonderful, well-researched book reads like a classic. It is set in 1926 in St. John’s, Newfoundland and features two sisters who are basically orphans. Their mother has just died and their father has brought them from Ontario to Newfoundland. Newfoundland was not yet a part of Canada. The father leaves them in the care of a miserable woman, Mrs. Hatch (definite use of onamonapia in my opinion) while he ventures into the interior of Newfoundland in search of gold. It is really a coming-of-age story for Sadie, 14 as she tries to adjust to her new life while at the same time providing stability and love for her younger sister Flora. The Word for Home is a character-driven novel that is also rich in setting. I had read the book long before I ever went to St. John’s, but walking in the footsteps of the characters makes one appreciate the careful details that Ms. Clark put into her narrative.


  1. What a wonderful review of a book that also sums up my feelings of Newfoundland. I remember reading this when I was a young teenager and then, one night around the dinner table, hearing from you and Dad that we would be moving to a different city. One line from the book stood out for me: "The word for home is family", and I knew then that it didn't matter where we lived, home would always be wherever you and Dad and my siblings were.

    (Very cheesy, but also very true!)

    And getting to travel to Newfoundland for the first time with you was a dream come true.

  2. Nothing wrong with cheesy! I did a quick re-read of this book and realized that the school that Sadie attends was right down the street from where you stayed. Bishop Spencer was destroyed by fire in 1999. We saw the bronze sculpture of the little girl in the Spencer uniform which was erected near the site.

  3. Love hearing your Newfoundland stories, Julie. Would have loved to have known "Little Nanny" too. I am sure you will enjoy reading "Bay Girl" by good friend and great writer, Heather Smith, when it comes out this fall with Orca Books. Heather really captures the Newfoundland spirit!

    1. Thanks for the suggestion Nan. I will be watching for "Bay Girl" - you know what I like!


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