“The Alder Bed” is an absorbing, multi-generational family drama, its panoramic time period geographically anchored in New Perlican, Trinity Bay. The narrative is divided into five sections, each from the perspective of a series of inter-linked characters: Lexie, Dan, Rose, Daisy, and Iris. Each opens with a quote, for example: “Part Three (Rose) ‘I shall never cease to marvel at the way we beg for love and tyranny’ – (Francine du Plessix Gray) ‘Lovers and Tyrants’.”
The novel opens in January, 1914, as Lexie Fisher is going out jannying for the first time. Her best friend Carrie has been mummering for years, but Lexie’s mother, Sally, insisted Lexie wait until she was 15. The girls excitedly rifle closets and trunks for disguises, curtains and oilskins and pillowcases, and set out for a night of name-guessing and dancing, fruitcake and blueberry wine.
Rounding off the evening they find themselves at the Alder bed, a thick grove of trees, spooky and haunted by ruffians. Sure enough, they hear a ruckus, and, creeping through the snow, witness a rout of four against two. The fallen duo are left prone on the ground, but rouse themselves; one of them is Dan Connor.
“Lexie knew of Dan Connor but he wasn’t someone she encountered in her daily life. She’d heard the girls at school talk about him, how handsome he was, how funny. And she knew that he played the accordion at dances now and then. She’d seen him there, seen the girls flock around him.”
Soon Lexie attends her first dance, at the Orange Lodge; Dan leads the music. Whatever is pulling her towards him is only growing stronger. Later in the spring Lexie is finished school, and there is talk of her training as a teacher. Her family is well off, with her father, Capt. Ken Fisher, at the helm of one of their three schooners that regularly prosecute the Labrador fishery. Her brothers Will and John are protective of Lexie, and married to lovely women (problematic Lew the exception here). Opportunities beckon.
But before that summer is over, her father has died at sea, and war has broken out. Nothing is certain anymore. The only thing Lexie is sure of is how she feels about Dan. Soon, the inevitable has happened, and Sally has asked Dan’s mother, Lena, to the house. Somewhat unexpectedly, neither woman presses Lexie to marry Dan. To Sally he is not of the right employment or income, to Lena the right temperament. But Lexie, who has rather passively followed her path so far, is determined. Dan has said he wanted to marry her – at least, something that sounded like that. And that is her goal.
But a wedding, and a child, don’t bring Lexie the domestic coziness she had imagined. Dan decides to enlist – not in the Newfoundland Regiment, but in the British Navy (strictly, the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve).
“Amid cries of ‘hip, hip, hurray,’ the band played them out into a soft summer evening. Lexie waited with Lena and (Dan’s stepfather) Jake while Dan did the rounds, grinning broadly as he and the other new military men shook hands with everyone and received hearty pats on the back. Lexie was struck by their youth, their desperate determination to leave their home, either out of a sense of duty or a desire to see a different part of the world. Or to escape a mundane life of hardship and responsibility, whether they’d admit it or not … they caught a schooner to St. John’s. After a period of training, they boarded a ship that carried them across to England. And just like that, Lexie Fisher Connor had joined the ranks of the women who feared they’d never see their men again.”
Other events affect and are reflected in such intimate details: The “Newfoundland” seal hunt disaster; Beaumont Hamel; William Coaker and the FPU; Sir Richard Squires and his corruption; The Depression; out-migration.
Throughout, New Perlican, author Annette Martin’s home town, is the hub. As she explains in her Acknowledgements, she manipulated the geography a little bit, to suit the story, but clearly holds the place in loving recall.
And she populates it with characters a reader wants to follow through the text.
(Minor pet peeve – I did notice comma faults – I won’t go into all of it – it’s the difference between placing a comma between two adjectives modifying the same noun versus doing the same between the first adjective modifying idea expressed by the combination of the second adjective and the noun – oh, you just know it when you see it, but feel free to check it all out at grammer.com).
Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.