Skip to main content Skip to search Skip to search

Fiction Historical

Blackstrap Hawco

by (author) Kenneth J. Harvey

Random House of Canada
Initial publish date
Mar 2009
Historical, Literary, 21st Century
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Mar 2009
    List Price

Add it to your shelf

Where to buy it


Fifteen years in the making, this book is the one Canada’s “heavyweight champ of brash and beautiful literature” was meant to write. An epic masterwork about Newfoundland’s working class, Blackstrap Hawco spans more than a century in gorgeous and widely varied prose, reminding us that even when writing about the degradation of identity and language, Harvey does it magnificently.

Named in a moment of anger, Blackstrap Hawco is heir to an island dominion picked over by its adoptive nation. From the arrivals of the indentured Irish to the Victorian drawing rooms of the English merchants, from the perilous seal hunt to the raucous iron ore mines, from a notorious disaster at sea to the relocation of outport communities, the family legend might be all his people have left to live for. But as Blackstrap Hawco – a novel that will consume you in its dazzling swirl of voices, legends and beautiful hearsay – testifies, a story this haunting, this powerful, might just be enough.

About the author

Kenneth J. Harvey recently won the prestigious Raddall Atlantic Fiction Prize and is the author of several novels, including Shack: The Cutland Junction Stories, The Flesh So Close, Skinhound: There Are No Words, The Woman in the Closet, Brud (Little, Brown), and Nine-tenths Unseen (Somerville House). Harvey has held the post of Writer in Residence at both the University of New Brunswick and Memorial University. He lives in an outport in Newfoundland.

Kenneth J. Harvey's profile page


  • Nominated, Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (Canada & Caribbean)
  • Nominated, Scotiabank Giller Prize

Excerpt: Blackstrap Hawco (by (author) Kenneth J. Harvey)

Book One

In 1953, my great-grandfather, Jacob Hawco, faced death on the trapline. He was only three miles from his home in Bareneed, a small fishing community that eventually was resettled by the government of Joseph Smallwood in 1962, and then repopulated some time later.
My great-grandfather would sell his pelts to the merchant store in Bareneed. It was owned by Bowering Brothers. Jacob had met his future wife, Emily Duncan, my great-grandmother, in that store. Emily’s father, Alan, who had fled Liverpool, England, for reasons that will later be revealed, had come to Bareneed to take over the store in 1926.
The story (below) of Jacob’s peril on the trapline was told to me by Andrew Tuttle, who I recently discovered was my cousin and who now resides in Boston.
The story of my grandfather’s birth was written down for me and is printed almost exactly as written, besides editorial corrections and tone alterations, by Pamela Critch (née Murphy), the great-great-granddaughter of the midwife in attendance.
The sections throughout this book featuring Blackstrap Hawco were originally in Book Two (Blackstrap’s story from 1971 to 2007) and were moved to Book One in order to give cohesion to the collected diaries, interviews and journal entries that make up Book One of this narrative.


Bareneed, Newfoundland
Blackstrap Hawco’s father, Jacob, meets with wilderness injury prior to Blackstrap’s birth

The rabbit was cleanly frozen, its glassy eyes depthless, its white fur vaguely speckled against the purity of snow. Crouching beside the rabbit, Jacob Hawco did not remove his mitts. His fingers were damp with sweat and might stick to the snare wire. He knew of the restrictions placed on using picture wire to snare rabbits, but he believed the decree was made by people who knew nothing of living off the land, of survival through one’s own efforts. Ignorant people who insisted that their misunderstandings be forced upon everyone else, no matter what the cost. Who’re da real barbarians? Jacob asked himself. People never knowing people at all.

The winter air was piercingly fresh to such a degree that it stung his skin. Yet there was not a breath of wind. Beyond the grove of spruce, birch and larch, the sun blazed against a field of white. Jacob stared toward the clearing, his breath rising to cloud the brilliant aura. He watched toward the luminous white while he loosened the snare loop from the groove cut into the rabbit’s fur and throat. The white appeared to be shifting within itself, throbbing as though something startling might take form. He stared back down at the rabbit that appeared whiter with the glare burned into his eyes. He watched it laid out in both his hands. For a moment, he thought on the lightness of it, then lifted the flap of the burlap satchel hanging from his shoulder, and dropped the rabbit in.

Turning and standing at once, he sensed his right boot breaking loose from its snowshoe, snapping a worn strap that needed tending, his boot plunging through the snow, toward the incline of a hidden burrow. He grabbed for a tree, snatched to hold, his mitts slipping along the thin bald limb. Instantly — before the pain was delivered — he knew of the damage he had caused himself, heard the bone snap, felt it through his entire body, the blare of the crack within the rush of noise resulting from one misdirected step.

Buckling onto the snow, he was vaguely aware — through the searing, deafening pain — of a fox scurrying out from the hole his foot had sunk into.

Sweet adorable Christ h’almighty, sweet mudder a’ Christ, Jaysus, Jaysus, Jaysus. He cursed the pain, cursed himself, cursed his own stupidity to hold up strength. Face flinching with the immediacy of injury, he became aware of his arms sunk in the deep snow; the biting crystal cold at his wrists. No way a’ make’n it t’roo da woods now. No way. Stunned. How bloody, Christly stunned. He raised his head to stare along the snow path, the blazing sun beyond the trees. He pulled his hands up out of the snow, struggled to lean on his side, used both hands to yank his boot from the hole, prop himself up on an elbow. The worst of the pain tore through him.

The misery he experienced when he rolled over was of inhuman cruelty. The sweat poured from his brow and cheeks, had no time to dot the snow before it froze onto his skin in sparkling salt crystals, yet sopped the hair beneath his woollen cap. He reached for a resilient branch of a bush sticking up through the snow, gathered a fistful, and hauled himself to a sitting position.

From where he sat, he stared at his leg. The blood on the snow. Not a great deal of it, a spray of flecks, although it could be pouring down, deeper into the soft snow, staining the ice-hard earth beneath. The wetness already frozen, stiffening the fabric of his trousers. The jagged bone broken through the skin and showing itself where its tip cut through his pants. Such violent damage from a simple fall. He knew he could not stand, would not even attempt it. There was no walking this way. Not with the buckle broken on his snowshoe. One foot sunk deep in the snow with each painful step, the other cradled on the surface by the snowshoe. Never could he walk like that.

A rustle of movement caught his eye. It pained to move his head, for now every part of him appeared connected directly to his leg. Clumps of accumulated snow quietly fell from the boughs of a nearby evergreen. Jacob watched the fox, favouring one front paw, show itself, out from around the trees. It stood there, studying him, raising its snout, sniffing the air.

Jacob searched around. Nothing to help him. No way of walking. He lay on his back, endured the chaos of misery as he rolled over onto his stomach. He would have to drag himself along the trapline, hoping his damaged leg would not freeze. He must keep off the ground. Preserve his body’s warmth. Edge up a tree as he came across it. Stand for a while. Try to get ahead like that. Yet, ultimately, he would have to crawl most of the way. He thought of a fire, of returning to the tilt he had built a mile back in the woods. Heat would sustain him. The other way. He must turn the other way. Not toward the brilliant clearing at the edge of the grove, but deeper into the still, wintry woods. There he would find warmth.

No one was expecting him at home for days.

He was on the trapline, his leg broken. It was a pitiful situation, yet one that might be mastered. He grabbed for a bush, and, grimacing, edged himself ahead a few inches. He wished that Emily had allowed Jacob Jr. to come along. The boy would find his way out and return with help, but Jacob did not really need help. No, it was strangely funny in itself. He chuckled despite the agony, his humour boring into the pain. He would figure it all out. Narry a problem. Narry a care in da world. Nut’n but clear roads ahead. I’s at me leisure. Jacob Jr. was in school learning from books of no good use to him, education at the insistence of Junior’s educated mother. The boy should be here, in the woods, learning the truth of nature’s doing.

T’ink, Jacob told himself. Forget da foolishness ’n t’ink. Already his neck muscles were beginning to strain from holding his head up off the snow. He reached for another bush, just barely out of reach, lurched for it, grabbed hold, struggled to pull his body ahead another few inches. He knew how reason alone would prevent him from becoming empty like the rabbit in his bag.

How to beat the odds?

How to survive?

He tried making plans, as a means of smothering the pain, yet his mind shifted on its own, to centre on the fine tale that would be salvaged from this stroke of misfortune. A glorious yarn worth telling. Emily loved an adventure story, the way Jacob kept her captivated by its telling, the glint in her eyes when she glanced up from her needlepoint, awaiting the next word while he reeled out the yarns about catastrophe at sea and the overcoming of great peril. Icebergs snapping in half nearby and spilling chunks of ice onto the deck up on the Labrador. Huge slabs of ice, big enough to punch holes in the wood, beating down around them, the vibrations knocking every man off his feet. Or men dying of unknown maladies on board and shoved away in crates piled high with pickling salt. Having to pass by the crate every day during his ocean-bound duties while they carried on their voyage. Muttering a few words in passing. A blessing. No turning back when there was a living to be earned. Not even death able to waylay a fishing voyage. Emily’s favourite tales told with a bit of difference each time. This would amount to one of them. But the story would be of use to no one, would add up to nothing if it died in his head.

Pain was no story at all. It was nothing but an exclamation point. It came at him and he shut his eyes. Pain with its own varying, flickering shades of pink, red and white behind his eyelids.
Gradually, with his body relaxing from the clutch of torment, he grunted in near relief and reached ahead for another bush, snatched a handful of tangled branches and dragged himself forward. Squinting in mortal agony, he imagined Emily’s eyes on him and drove the pain from his expression. He considered the way he would deliver the tale, sitting around the kitchen lantern at night, the amber glow on his face, Emily’s smiling intent eyes carefully peeking at him as he explained with words and gesture, his hands making it whole again. And Jacob Jr. there, too. The boy wanting him to repeat the part about the fox. The part about the bone snapping. The terrible sound it made. The part about the trail he dragged himself along with the smear of red after him. The crackle of the woodstove behind Emily and Jacob Jr. The full warmth of his home with the wind howling beyond the windowpane, hurling snow pellets against the glass. He would live to smile at that.

Cringing out a chuckle, he grabbed another bush, yanked at it to feel it come loose in his hand. The entire bush up from the snow. Roots and all. A spray of dirt sprinkled along the snow. Grains of earth on his lips. He spat them away and strained a glance back to see the trail of his own blood smeared in the snow, exactly as he imagined. He snatched for another bush, wound the clump of branches around his mitt, dragged his body forward over the recesses of his snowshoe prints, the trail that had led him to his stroke of hard luck, the trail that he now retraced.

His thoughts on the fleeing fox. Had it been injured by his foot’s intrusion into its burrow? He cast a glance off to the right, saw it trotting along, sitting when Jacob paused to dam his eyes shut and grind his teeth against a wicked flurry of pain. Other concerns niggled him through the breathless sweat of injury’s noise that he heard and tasted like metal in his mouth each time he shifted.

The fox favoured its front paw as it trotted closer on three, sniffing at Jacob.

He thought ahead, the traps set, the fox. Steel jaws snapping shut to penetrate the fox’s leg. It whimpered like a beagle barred out, sticking close. An omen, Jacob decided. T’ink, he told himself. Dis’ll be easy. Jus’ git da right end’n fer da story.


How he grabbed for the branch and it snapped off in his hand. No, how the bush came up by the roots, snow flying back at him like a slap in the face. No, how the branch whipped back and lashed his face and he was blinded for minutes, not fully regaining his sight until . . . He would explain how movement slowed down, how the fox scurried from its hole, running off like a mutt, yapping, as Jacob toppled over into the soft snow, his arms sinking deep, trying to rise but impossible, impos­sible . . . No, how he passed out with the unbearable suffering and woke with his body gone numb, the side of his face pressed to the snow as though it were dead, nothing but meat. Dat’s all we be, Junior. Nut’n but da worst sort o’ ugly meat widt da blessed life spilled outta us. Barely a breath of life left in him, thinking of a way, and how he knew that he must set the leg himself with two pieces of wood, cleaved from a tree with his axe, and wait for it to mend. Cleaved it meself, Emily, frum a larch tree pointed t’ward da east. Drag himself over the trapline, checking the snares and traps he had set, careful not to set them off himself, collecting carcasses along the way, filling his satchel or dragging the carcasses at his side, pulling himself along, pulling the carcasses along, inch by inch. Him and his prized pelts, back to the safety of his tilt. ’N dere dey be, b’ys, right dere in dat sack. Nut’n to it.

A dusting of snow sprinkled before his face. Looking up, he saw a lone crow shifting on a snow-covered bough and — despite his flinching pain — could not help but grin at the perfection of its deathly presence.

Blackstrap’s mother, Emily, recalls the night her family fled Liverpool

The Caribou and the Cabot sailed between the straits of Conception Bay, carrying men from the iron ore mines on Bell Isle, back the ten or twelve miles to their home towns along the ragged-cliffed Newfoundland coast. Carbonear, Harbour Grace, Spaniard’s Bay, Port de Grave, Bareneed. Good money was to be made on Bell Isle; the booming town was full of mainlanders, Americans and Canadians, shipped in with the knowledge required to exploit the resources and maintain the mines.

Editorial Reviews

“Mesmerizing scenes worthy of a national epic... Its meticulous construction and control contain a breadth of incident and characterization seen only in the most ambitious and imposing novels.”
The Globe & Mail

“Kenneth J. Harvey, Atlantic gale, continues to astonish. And in Blackstrap Hawco, he has given Newfoundland, not to mention the world, something very great indeed.”
National Post

“ A masterpiece... brutal, poignant, stunning, infuriating, heartbreaking and hopeful, hard to read and harder still to put aside.”
The Chronicle Herald

Blackstrap Hawco is an ambitious book, far-reaching, deliberately complex, blunt, ruthless and lyrical.”
The Telegram

“Brilliant... a loving tribute to the uniqueness of Newfoundland.”
Winnipeg Free Press

"There are moments that are literally awe-inspiring and writing so skilled it almost brought me to tears... more ambitious than any Canadian novel in recent memory."
The Vancouver Sun
“Easily the best book of the year and an instant classic.”
Ottawa Xpress

“By virtue of its sheer size and scope, it’s a deep source of impression, reflection and consideration.”
The Globe & Mail

Other titles by Kenneth J. Harvey

Related lists