23rd Newfoundland & Labrador Book Awards
The Writers’ Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador announced the finalists for the prestigious Newfoundland and Labrador Book Awards (NLBAs) this past November (2019).
For 2019, the Awards honoured excellence in the categories of Non-Fiction and Poetry.
Finalists for Non-Fiction:
– Stan Dragland: Gerald Squires (Pedlar Press) 2019 WINNER
– Anne Budgell: We All Expected to Die: Spanish Influenza in Labrador, 1918–1919 (ISER Books)
– Vicki Sara Hallett: Mistress of the Blue Castle: The Writing Life of Phebe Florence Miller (ISER Books)
Jury Members: Russell Wangersky, Jenny Higgins, Bill Rowe
Finalists for Poetry:
– Alison Dyer: I’d Write the Sea Like a Parlour Game (Breakwater Books) 2019 WINNER
– Helen Fogwill Porter: Full Circle (Breakwater Books)
– Agnes Walsh: Oderin (Pedlar Press)
Jury Members: Greg Pike, Mark Callanan, Patrick Warner
Each winner received a cash prize of $1,500, with the remaining finalists to receive $500 each.
The 2019 NLBAs were made possible by the generous support of the Pratt family, for sponsoring the EJ Pratt Poetry Prize, G&M Enterprises Ltd., who contributed to the Non-fiction award. We also wish to thank Rogers TV, NL Public Libraries, The Telegram, Perfect Day, and NL Teachers’ Association for their kind contributions, as well as Glenn Deir and Mary Dalton for giving their time to host our shortlist readings.
The Newfoundland and Labrador Book Awards are held annually by the Writers’ Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador (WANL) to recognize excellence in writing by authors resident in Newfoundland and Labrador.
What the jury members said about the shortlisted books…
We All Expected to Die: Spanish Influenza in Labrador, 1918–1919 by Anne Budgell (ISER Books)
Anne Budgell has written an extraordinary and essential work on a neglected episode in Newfoundland and Labrador history. At the close of the carnage of the First World War, the world then became engulfed by the so-called “Spanish” Influenza, probably the deadliest disease ever to strike humankind. It killed upwards of a hundred million people, many of the men and women in the prime of life. In isolated Labrador settlements, which Anne Budgell writes about, the flu was disproportionately lethal. The death rate in the Inuit communities of Okak and Hebron was over 70%. She mines memories, diaries, letters, newspapers, company journals, and government and missionary records to recount fully, with an unflinching voice, the appalling impact of the pandemic, and the apathy and negligence of official responses. But her story also tells of the courage and fortitude of individual men, women and children in the face of horrific tragedy.
Gerald Squires by Stan Dragland (Pedlar Press)
Stan Dragland’s Gerald Squires is no ordinary art book, no accompaniment or add-on to a greater body of visual art plates. Nor is it any sort of encomium.
It is, more than anything else, condensed and meticulous research working through a huge volume of documentary evidence, followed by a careful and thoughtful attempt to ensure that what’s left on all that paper actually matches the personal experiences those near to him had of Squires.
Then, it is delivered in detailed, precise prose that displays a complicated man, warts and all, in a way that makes even those warts something to behold.
It could be needlessly academic: it is not. It could easily be overcomplicated: it is not that, either.
Instead, this is a remarkably honest book written with great love, great care, and great respect for the artist it reveals and explains. That love and respect shows on every page.
Mistress of the Blue Castle: The Writing Life of Phebe Florence Miller by Vicki Sara Hallett (ISER Books)
By braiding together three major threads of Phebe Florence Miller’s writing life – her poetry, diaries, and letters – Vicki Sara Hallett has created a compelling and creative portrait of a little-known, yet utterly fascinating, literary figure from the province’s past. Hallett’s exhaustive research anchors the book, while her charismatic writing will captivate a broad audience.
The author’s perceptive reading of Miller’s writings is contextualized by engaging descriptions of the place, culture, and time in which Miller lived. The result is a biography that not only introduces a largely forgotten poet to a contemporary audience but also places her in the larger fabric of Newfoundland and Labrador culture and history.
A work of both the heart and the mind, this gem of a book will stay with you long after you have finished reading.
I’d Write the Sea Like a Parlour Game by Alison Dyer (Breakwater Books)
The poems in Alison Dyer’s I’d Write the Sea Like a Parlour Game are steeped in realism, particularly in the Newfoundland environment, its landscapes, streetscapes, rocks, flora and chickens.
Dyer’s poem “Why He Rested on the Seventh Day” describes a world post-Genesis “Roared, erupted, soft and hot. / Spewed viscous pyroclasts. / Hardened into tuff. / Steamed, cooled in showers of thunder. / Strummed, stroked, beaten. / Needled by rain, ice, and salty sea. / Prostrated into pillowed lava.”
Elsewhere the poems can be whimsical. The eponymous tree in “White Birch (the moon child)” is “A real arboreal fashionista. / Not so flashy as the maple (does she or doesn’t she), / no socialist hankerings like the spruce, // but your moon-dappled, tattooed-trunk-/oh so cool– /belies your heat, those BTUs of wild winter love.”
Dyer’s imagination engages nature not to dominate but to fuse perception with language, which she does admirably, page after page, often in miniature, and with surprising and affecting metaphors (as in the title poem). Her confident lines are textured and musical: “Knuckles of quartz punched out of bruised purple sandstone/ sea blue with scratch marks from wind and current, /and twinkling pools like barrels of marbles spilt.” (Tattoos of Signal Hill)
These poems are a love song to place and are to be savoured.
Full Circle by Helen Fogwill Porter (Breakwater Books)
It is no mistake that Helen Fogwill Porter’s Full Circle, the long-awaited debut poetry collection from an acknowledged cornerstone of the local literary community, begins with a poem called “Circle Game.” In alluding to Joni Mitchell’s song of the same name (minus the initial article), Fogwill Porter signals her collection’s similar concerns: the passage of time, the growth and maturation of the individual, and above all, the undeniably cyclical nature of life. But Fogwill Porter’s “game,” in which the young speaker is brutally beaten (by, ironically, a Sister of Mercy), is closer in tone to the threatening titular poem of Margaret Atwood’s 1964 collection, The Circle Game, than to Mitchell’s wistful paean to fading youth.
One of Fogwill Porter’s virtues is in balancing the book’s tonal registers, from the playful self-deprecation of “The Lady Vanishes,” for instance (“I used to measure five foot six / when I was young and spry. / Today I measure five foot two / O Lord I want to cry.”), to the more intimate, confessional vein of “The Dancer” (“My daughters think I’m sensible and solid, / someone who’s always there to call them in the morning, / to cook the roast and order pants from Eaton’s. / What would they say, I wonder, if I told them / I’d like to go play marbles in the mud?), or her sly skewering of patriarchal constructs in her revision of Rudyard Kipling’s “If.”
Throughout, Fogwill Porter reports on all us captives “on the carousel of time” with a kind and sympathetic eye, and from a vital, feminist viewpoint. Full Circle is a much welcome first collection from a trailblazer of Newfoundland and Labrador literature.
Oderin by Agnes Walsh (Pedlar Press)
Oderin navigates the flotsam and jetsam of Walsh’s mother’s descent into dementia. The poems stand stark and strong. The collection is cohesive and united. The archetypal conceit of a ship on the sea is rendered down to a craftless soul lost in the waves:
Tommy Donald, who spent three nights overboard, “…held unto his father and his uncle until both slipped off his fingers into the black night.”
Tommy’s rescuer has to “fold him up / like a piece of paper” while his mind is “left / out there;” and likewise the reader wonders if Tommy’s story is a warning for the mother, or for the poet who clings to her.
The fairies, the ocean, the navigation of place, past and relationships, all explore the pieces as we go through the stages of battle, loss, and acceptance. It is as much about the poet’s survival as it is about the mother’s fragmented passing.
Walsh’s poetry is universal, yet grounded in local particulars. It flows into the raw and colloquial, and it bounces from light to dark subjects without breaking the overall tone and flow of the collection.
Oderin is a poetic study in self and identity that rings true and authentic, unpretentious and powerful.