Here's a "starter kit" of films, CDs, and literature that can prepare you for a rewarding visit to the Atlantic Provinces.
Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery is a children's book for all time and a lovely evocation of life on Prince Edward Island. Originally published in 1908, Montgomery's fictional, ever-sunny Anne is the island's most famous export, hands down; this cycle of novels about an adopted red-haired girl remains enormously popular worldwide, thanks to both Montgomery's delineation of island characters and Anne's irrepressible optimism. It's less well known that there is an entire series of Anne books; Gables, the original in the series, only takes Anne's life through age 16. In future installments, Montgomery gave her a job as a school principal and took readers through Anne's marriage and motherhood. Montgomery was prolific beyond the Anne cycle as well, writing a series of spin-off novels about the lives of other townspeople in the fictional town of Avonlea; Chronicles of Avonlea (1912) and Further Chronicles of Avonlea (1920) are probably the best known. Montgomery also authored a number of other books and short stories set on the island not involving Anne at all, although none of these has achieved anywhere near the lasting fame of the Anne stories; these works include Jane of Lantern Hill (1937), Mistress Pat (1935), and Along the Shore, a 1989 collected volume.
If you can locate it, the Oxford University Press edition of Anne of Green Gables is annotated with plenty of biographical material, excerpts from the author's girlhood journals, colloquial explanations of cookery, directions to locations featured in the book, and the like -- it's a better choice for adult travelers. The Children's Classics edition is a simple hardcover version, great for kids.
No book with adult themes set in the Maritime Provinces is more famous than The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx (1993). Proulx won both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for her second novel, the tale of a crushed down-and-out New Yorker who moves to Newfoundland and takes up a job penning articles for a shipping newspaper in the land of his forebears -- a position which puts him at an intersection with some of the more fascinating characters on (or just passing through) the Rock. The protagonist must also battle the demons left him by his former wife. Yet he somehow begins to rebuild a life of dignity, hope, and purpose. Although often criticized for its overblown style, there's no denying this novel captures that peculiar blend of isolation, perkiness, and quirkiness that makes up a Newfie.
In The Bird Artist, author Howard Norman continues the tradition of Vermont-linked authors heading north and finding literary gold in the Maritimes. This book, about a remote Newfoundland fishing village, was a finalist for the 1994 National Book Award, and rightly so. It spins the yarn of a local artist (with a tremendous gift for drawing birds) who has committed a murder and seeks a curious redemption for that act through his drawings and a marriage arranged by his parents. His true love, Margaret, is a hoot -- a hard-drinking, sexually aware woman -- and yet touching, as are many of the assembled minor characters, from the village reverend on down. It's a heartfelt novel and ought to be brought along on any trip to the Rock.
Norman is more than a one-book wonder. His novel The Museum Guard (1999) is set in a fictional Halifax art museum, where a downbeat guard's female companion becomes obsessed with a Dutch painting. The stories of the guard's upbringing, his lady's obsession, and their dreary lives tell much about the often claustrophobic and hard-bitten lives of Maritimers.
Norman turned to nonfiction for My Famous Evening (2004), recounting both his own personal travels and correspondences in Nova Scotia as well as some fantastic, seemingly unreal stories of real Nova Scotians and some folk tales from the province. Definitely worth picking up if you will be in Nova Scotia.
Recently reissued, A Whale for the Killing by Farley Mowat (1972) is a true story that became a touchstone for animal rights activists. The famed biologist and activist tells the tale of a huge whale stranded in a Newfoundland cove in the 1970s and the group of locals bent on killing it; the real-life Mowat becomes the whale's protector but ultimately fails -- then writes about it afterward. It's interesting for the clash of ideals between local fisherfolk and an environmentalist from the "outside" (Mowat is from Ontario and Saskatchewan originally). This is not a pretty, quaint look at the Maritimes but rather a slice of real life here.
In The Boat Who Wouldn't Float (1969), Mowat turned to humor, and the resulting book (now reissued) turns out to be surprisingly raucous and sidesplitting. Mowat purchases a used schooner in Newfoundland, but it doesn't hold water well, and there are serious doubts he'll ever get out of port. His subsequent misadventures and cruises among the ports of Newfoundland and beyond are wonderful fodder. Reading them, you learn about screech (a famously powerful Newfie liquor) and much more; it's clear Mowat holds great affection for the Newfies, even as he skewers them and himself.
For historical background, try to find Part of the Main by Peter Neary and Patrick O'Flaherty (1986). In it, two of the Maritime Provinces' most prolific historians lay out the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. It was published by a local St. John's publisher; the book is improved by the inclusion of several hundred photographs.
For a look at where the economy of the region is headed lately, Lament for an Ocean by Michael Harris (1998) is a fine nonfiction work documenting the shockingly sudden decline of the Maritime fisheries -- and the consequences for both Newfoundland's way of life and its already imperiled economy.
Many films have been made in the Maritimes but precious few have been made about them.
Johnny Belinda (1948) is one. The film takes place on Cape Breton Island, starring lovely Jane Wyman in a surprisingly sensitive performance as a deaf-mute woman who is sexually assaulted and then turns on her attacker. She won an Oscar for the role.
The Shipping News (2001) is an evocative picture with a stellar cast, based on the novel of the same name by E. Annie Proulx. The film was shot in Newfoundland -- a condition of Proulx's sale of the screen rights, it's been said -- and the visuals alone make the film an excellent watch. Kevin Spacey is the news writer Quoyle (he seems to have gained a little weight for the role), and Cate Blanchett plays his abusive wife.
Music in the Maritime Provinces is generally a Celtic-inflected folk, or else a pop music greatly influenced by that sound.
Nova Scotia native Sarah McLachlan is the exception; she has made it bigger around the globe than anyone else from eastern Canada, thanks to a continuing stream of haunting, minor-key pop classics. Among her studio albums, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (1994) features the single "Possession" and was her first breakout hit. Surfacing (1997) features "Sweet Surrender" and "Building a Mystery." The live record Mirrorball (1999) recaps much of McLachlan's best work in a live setting, including the often-heard gem "I Will Remember You."
Among the more folksy bands making headway, the Newfoundland band Great Big Sea have been the standard-bearers of modern Celtic music around the Maritimes for a while now, graduating from bar band to genuine folk influence in the best tradition of the Chieftains and the like. Of their output, I like Turn (2000) best; tunes such as "Boston and St. John's" speak closely to life in such an isolated, seafaring place.
The Rankins -- a family group from little Mabou, on Cape Breton Island -- were sorely underappreciated outside of eastern Canada while they were still together. The band broke up in the late 1990s, and one of its members was subsequently killed in a tragic auto accident on a twisting Cape Breton road, but their folk roots and chops came together with contemporary production (in the style of Enya or Clannad) in a way that has stood the test of time. Though a bit overproduced, there's no denying the mournful power of Jimmy Rankin's ballads, the infectious drive of the late John Morris Rankin's fiddle, and the lovely sweet harmonies of Rankin sisters Cookie, Raylene, and Heather. Among their oeuvre, North Country (1995) is the most fitting legacy to these local kids who made good.
Cape Breton fiddler Natalie MacMaster is probably Canada's finest, drawing favorable comparisons to American fiddler Alison Krauss. A Compilation (1998) serves as a nice introduction to her lightning-fast yet subtle style. On Blueprint (2003), she is joined by American musicians working in the same general vein, such as Béla Fleck and Sam Bush.
Finally, any serious discussion of Maritime music cannot omit the great Hank Snow. More than a decade before there was a Bob Dylan, and around the same time Hank Williams, Sr., was shooting to prominence, there was Snow, too, born in the small Nova Scotia fishing town of Liverpool (near Lunenburg), a rambling, yodeling ranger of a crooner who made a mark on Nashville and legions of folk and country musicians to come. One of Elvis Presley's heroes, he's a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and was a Grand Ole Opry staple for years. The Essential Hank Snow (1997) includes the classic "I'm Movin' On," which he wrote, as well as 19 other cuts.
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