First A Little About Annie Proulx:
She was born August 22, 1935 in Connecticut, Educated in history in Vermont and currently lives in Wyoming.
She won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for The Shipping News. She won PEN/Faulkner Award for her first novel, Postcards. She is the first woman to win the PEN/Faulkner Award!
A free spirit, she has divorced three times and has raised alone her three sons and one daughter. She lived many years in small towns in Vermont.
Most of her writing has been nonfiction. She has written both short and long nonfiction. Her controversial and critically acclaimed novella Brokeback Mountain was both a book and a film.
What we thought:
Like The Return of the Native, The Shipping News has “Nature” as a major character. Annie Proulx did a great amount of research, living many times in Newfoundland for months at a time. This showed in the exquisite details of the beauty of that stark, lonely, bleak and transcendent world. From the sparkling water shining as with diamonds at a glowing rainbow sunset, to slate gray, storm-tossed seas hiding its victims! Her knowledge of the details of boats, shipping, fishing and everything related to the ocean community enriched every part of her work.
Our group seemed to universally like or LOVE this book. Some had read it more than once and still really liked it the second time. The only negative comments were about the writing style, which sometimes had sentence fragments or long, run-on sentences. Others disagreed, thinking that these style “rule-breakers” enhanced the rhythm and texture of the narrative. Others didn’t even notice the unconventional style.
A few of us commented that, at first, the main character, Quoyle, his abused early life, his willingness to take abuse, his lack of confidence, made him very unsympathetic. A few wondered about reading on, but kept at it, then, it all changed!
Petal's violent death, his kidnapped very young daughters' close encounter with possible sex slavery, the joint suicide of his parents, the hostile rejection of his brother, and job loss, suddenly thrust our kind, loving, sweet-natured anti-hero into chaos with no future......that is, until his Aunt showed up for the funeral.
His Aunt's down-to-earth sense of reality and belief in redemption from adversity, led them to Newfoundland to try a new life in the harsh sea town, in the ancestral home which was filled with specters of Quoyle ancestors’ century long secrets.
What transpired there was amazing. While still afflicted with hardship, gradually all the characters transformed! The readers could barely see the changes as they occurred. We loved how Annie Proulx pitted each character's weakness, including the peripheral characters, against what that character hated or feared most. Quoyle wrote The Shipping News and he was afraid of water and hated boats. One man, abused as a child, wrote of the local sex crimes. An old bachelor wrote about home decorating and cleaning tips.
We loved the chapter headings from The Ashley Book of Knots. They were symbolic clues of the developments in the coming chapter. We loved the names! Each was such a unique Dickensian invention. Humor was evident throughout, but subtle. We would find ourselves chuckling over made-up newspaper headlines, then immediately pulled back into the plot.
One theme was sexual identity and sexual deviance. Our homegrown newspaper contained all the stories of incest and other sexual abuse they could find. The Aunt, a major character, whose actions saved them all, kept her same-sex relationships secret.
In fact, we loved all the characters, except maybe Petal, the evil wife of Quoyle, who was dispatched by the author early in the book. Without Petal, Quoyle would never have grown. This proves that all adversity, at least adversity in novels, is there for a reason. :>
All the characters were quirky, strong in their own way, honorable, likeable, solid and interesting. We tried to see if we could think of any other novel where all the characters were so engaging and strangely weird and wonderful! One member of our group mentioned Kent Haruf's Plainsong. We all agreed.
We loved the intensity of the dangerous and suspenseful scenes, such as the cheap speedboat capsizing and Guy Quoyle almost drowning, and also, the wind-storm blowing away the ancestral home. We even really liked the historical description of the pirate, inbred family of Quoyles pulling their enormous house across the frozen bay with the angry jeering villagers pursuing! What an image!
We loved the drunken "good-bye" party that destroyed one newspaperman’s trailer home and sank his hand crafted solid boat, which prevented him (temporarily) from leaving. He was loved THAT much!
We noted the themes of the changing economy and even global warming! This book was written long before global warming was widely discussed. Proulx talked of government changes that directly put people out of work, then started companies to rescue those out of work. Those new companies then immediately failed due to poor planning. In contrast the locals found ways to continue in smaller ways, helping each other and still satisfying their deep love of the sea. This was how the newspaper was started!
Bunny, Quoyle’s older daughter, was understandably emotionally disturbed after her trials. She was also "sensitive" to the strangeness of the past and the current mysterious events around her, (the white dog, the dream of the house flying away) yet she slowly and quietly evolved into a normal child. We loved that.
Quoyle's and Wave's transformation from passive, ungainly people into leaders in the community and into confident lovers was so gratifying to the reader. They both clung to loving memories of their deceased spouses only to reveal to each other later that both spouses were cheaters and abusers!
We talked about the scene at the end of the book where Quoyle, after achieving success in his community and acquiring the true love of his life, examines himself in a mirror after a shower. Approaching middle age, his stomach protruding, a loaf of a man, tall, heavy, with tree trunk legs, facial features grouped in the center of his face, thick red hair all over, Quoyle realized he was probably at his prime and he liked what he saw! It was a redemptive moment making the reader smile and almost bringing out happy tears.
We liked the end, which affirmed that winds called by magic knots can blow evil away, the dead can rise again and most importantly, true love can come gradually without obsession and pain.
Annie Proulx deserved her prizes for The Shipping News!