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Fiction 20th Century

Sylvanus Now

by (author) Donna Morrissey

Penguin Group Canada
Initial publish date
Sep 2009
20th Century, Family Life, Sea Stories
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Sep 2009
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jan 2007
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    May 2005
    List Price

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The time is the 1950s, and the place is Canada’s Atlantic coast at the edge of the great Newfoundland fishing banks. Sylvanus Now is a young fisherman of great charm and strength. His youthful desires are simple: he wants a suit to lure a girl—the fine-boned beauty Adelaide—and he knows exactly how much fish he has to catch to pay for it. Adelaide, however, has other dreams. She longs to escape the sea, the fish, and the stultifying community, but her need of refuge from her own troubled family leads her to Sylvanus and life in the neighbouring outport.

Set against the love story of Addie and Sylvanus is the sea, the Great Mother that is on the cusp of cataclysmic change. Caught between his desire to please his wife and his strongly independent nature, Sylvanus must decide what path his future will take.

About the author

Donna Morrissey (b. 1956) grew up in the isolated western Newfoundland community of The Beaches, where, she says, "There were twelve families and we didn't talk to six of them." She studied at Memorial University in St. John's, lived in various other parts of Canada, and makes her home in Halifax. Her first novel, Kit's Law (Penguin, 1999), the source of "Grieving Nan," won the National Booksellers Association Libris Award and garnered international praise.

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Excerpt: Sylvanus Now (by (author) Donna Morrissey)

A Man's Worth

Sylvanus now had just turned fourteen that morning when he burst through the school doors for summer, shoved his dory off from the calm shores of Cooney Arm, paddled through the narrow channel protecting the cove, and headed for the choppy waters of the open Atlantic. Tucked inside his pants pocket was a credit note for his confirmation suit, priced at thirty-two quintals of dried salt fish (on hold at the merchant's), and tucked around his feet were two coils of fishing twine, the end of each tightly knotted to a cod jigger.

Rowing half a mile along the rugged coastline, he anchored two stone's throws from where Pollock's Brook rushed out of a small estuary into the sea. Wrapping his fishing twine around each hand, he tossed the ends holding the jiggers overboard, their hooks more silvery than the underbelly of a herring as they sank into the sea. Rising, he planted both feet firmly on either side of his boat and began jigging: left forearm up, right forearm down; right forearm up, left forearm down. Thirty-two quintals of fish. A hundred and twelve pounds a quintal. He figured he could do it.

After scarcely five minutes of jigging, his left jigger hooked.

'Ah,' he grunted with satisfaction and, sitting back down, pulled in the fish. Ten pounds it felt. Fair size for drying and marketing. He grunted again. It was this, the immediacy of it, that fulfilled him. That even as he was twisting the jigger out of the cod's mouth, he was already tallying his own worth—unlike the hours spent over school books, studying letters and figures that made no sense.

Pulling a skinning knife out of his rubber boot, he cut the cod's throat to bleed it, cursing the gulls swooping and screaming overhead, one flapping so close he swung his knife at the yellowed eyes menacing him. Laying the fish aside, he tossed his jigger back into the sea and rose—left forearm up, right forearm down; right forearm up, left forearm down; up, down; up down—a sturdy figure in his father's black rubber pants and coat, unyielding to the rocking of his dory, his sou'wester pulled low, darkening his eyes as he faced into the sun and the gannets swooping black before its blaze as they dove into the sea a dozen feet below his boat, beaking back the caplin that were luring the cod to his jiggers.

Fourteen pounds. A day's jigging ought to land him half a quintal or more. With splitting, salting, and drying the fish on shore, it would take all three of the summer months, he figured, before he was able to dodge up to the merchant's and barter the price of the suit—for thirty-two quintal was the price he was figuring on paying, not the forty-two the merchant was asking. Perhaps he was poor at book learning, writing his numbers and letters backwards and trying the patience of his teachers and elders alike as they tried breaking him from the foolishness of his habit; but he could figure, sometimes for hours on end, about such things as how many cords of split wood to fill a twelve-by-twelve crawl space, or how long to leave a fish curing in brine, or, no doubt, how many hours it took to cut and sew a size-forty suit and how many quintals of fish to make a fair trade.

Another hook—a hard one. Real hard. Excitedly, he leaned over the side of his boat, pulled in his fishing twine, hand over hand, seeing a fathom down into the sea and the glazed eyes of a cod whose tail flicked confusedly as it was hauled from its brackish bed, up, up, up, breaking into the startling light of the sun.

'Whoa, now, who do we have here?' he asked in astonishment as he pulled the forty pounder half out of the water, the brown of its back glistening wet, its belly creamy as milk and swollen with roe. A mother-fish. Rarely would she feed off a jigger, busy as she was, bottom feeding and readying herself for spawning. Reverently, he unhooked the jigger from the mouth of the quietly struggling fish and watched the sun catch the last glimmer of her gills as she dove back into the deep, the sack of roe in her belly unscathed. He felt proud. The ocean's bounty, she was, and woe to he who desecrated the mother's womb. The gods smiled, and within the minute he was pulling another fish up from the deep, a twenty pounder, twice the normal size for a hand-jigged cod, and his heart pounded as he flipped it into his boat.

Two hours later, the twine was chafing his hands and his shoulders had begun to weaken. His father, before the sea took him (along with his eldest brother, Elikum), would've held out jigging till the tide ebbed. Come evening, he would've returned again, filling his boat for the second time that day, getting home late, late evening, working long into the night, gutting and splitting and salting his catch. And perhaps I might, too, row back out for the second tide, he thought. If I gets the morning's catch gutted and split and sitting in brine, and a good scoff of Mother's cooking filling me gut, I just might. And perhaps, by summer's end, I, too, might spend the whole day standing and jigging with nary an ache nor wish, like Father done.

Perhaps so. For now 'twas the most he could do to bleed the last fish, pull his anchor, and will his leaden arms to lift his paddles out of the water. Shoulders groaning, he rowed against a growing squall, plying harder on his paddles as he swerved back through the choppy waters that always choked the channel's narrow neck. One last long haul on his oars and he hoisted them inside, gliding toward the shoreline of Cooney Arm. Then, as he'd seen his elders do after making it through the neck in worsening weather, he rose, raising his eyes as if in salute to the wood-coated hills that cuddled the scant few houses of the arm from the wind and sea.

But Sylvanus's wasn't the salute of his elders. This morning's lop was a duck pond alongside the squalls they had survived. His was the salute of pride, for despite his having drawn ashore dozens of times before, sometimes with fifteen, maybe twenty pounds of cod for his mother's pot, today he was straddling a hundred and twenty pounds or more—a few pounds more than a quintal—from just four hours' fishing. A fisherman's catch, for sure, and to be bartered at the merchant's. And this thought cast his eyes anew upon the hills. Yet, unlike his elders', his sought more the rock gorge to his right and the thousands of fathoms of white foaming water crashing down its cut and spewing across the meadow into the embodying arms of the mother sea as she buoyed him and his bounty to shore. Water. God's blood, the elders used to say. And in his moment of pride, Sylvanus Now would've traded his last drop of red in gratitude.

Three months later, the thirty-two quintals of fish bartered and stored in the merchant's shed, he dodged home, a deep satisfaction filling his chest and the suit, carefully wrapped in brown paper, tucked under his arm. His mother, Eva, her aging hair bundled at her nape and her fading grey eyes bolstered by the black lustrous brows that she'd bequeathed to all of her boys, met him in the doorway. Proudly, he pulled the suit from its wrappings and held it before her—three sizes too big so's to allow for his last few years' growth—and announced he was quitting school and going fishing for good.

Eva sighed. His was the unsanctioned egg, the one who shuddered from her old woman's body long after the others had been born and grown, and a month after her husband and eldest had been lost to the sea. Too wearied was she to give chase when, the moment he found his legs, he was rattling doorknobs and gateposts and trotting along the beach, bawling to go out in the boat with her third eldest, Manny. And in vain were her protests when Manny, his own chin still soft with baby-down, yet his heart broader than his burly frame and sorrowing for this fatherless youngster, buttoned him inside an oilskin coat that fell below his knees, and hove him aboard his punt. Tying a length of twine with a jigger around Sylvanus's pudgy hands, he shoved off from shore, heading for the fishing grounds. Now, as Sylvanus filled her doorway, grinning foolishly over the suit he held before her, his glut of coarse, dark hair and brows exaggerating a stubbornness fossilized since birth, she merely ambled past him, pulling on her gardening gloves.

Hooking his suit to a notch below the mantel, Sylvanus left the house and sauntered down to his father's stage, untouched since the day of his drowning, and wriggled open the door. It was darkish inside and murky, the air sharp with brine. Filling his lungs, he stood, waiting, watching, as his eyes adjusted, giving shape to the bulks and bundles strewn around him.

Editorial Reviews

“Breathtakingly beautiful… A splendidly unique novel.” –Alastair MacLeod

“Morrissey summons energy and passion to invest this clash of the old versus the new with an epic quality—and succeeds… the writing is poised, charged and tactile, almost biblical in places.” –The London Sunday Times

“ arresting tale, recounted in powerful, lyrical prose.” –Montreal Gazette

“Absorbing human drama, in Morrissey’s best yet.” –Kirkus Review

“Donna Morrissey is an absolute terrific original.” –David Adams Richards

“Irresistible… Masterful… The rich, rocky terrain of Newfoundland has borne a native storyteller with talent to burn in Donna Morrissey.” –Dublin Sunday Tribune

“Donna Morrissey is a wonderfully gifted writer. The setting of her books is Newfoundland, but their appeal is universal. She unashamedly cares for her characters and sees them as real people with real lives worth caring and reading about. To read one of her books is to wind up laughing or crying or somehow doing both at once.” –Wayne Johnston

“Everything is hyper-vivid in Morrissey’s world, not excluding emotions, dreams and unresolved conflicts… Morrissey reveals the beauty and the terror of two economic realities, worlds apart from us and from each other.” –Toronto Star

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