The Boat: changing traditions in Cape Breton (Dr Jennifer Minter, English Works)
The boat, Jenny Lynn, is named after the mother’s maiden name, which links her to a “chain of tradition” among the fishermen on the bitter-windswept island. It becomes a natural marker of one who is “of the sea” as are “our people”. But the boat comes to represent so much more and whilst it represents the mother’s place, it signifies the father’s failed dreams and his own sense of disappointment, both as a husband and father. He is forced to carve out an existence at sea against his wishes. To the son, the boat represents the father’s courage because he believes it was “very much braver to spend a life doing what you really do not want rather than selfishly following forever your own dreams and inclinations.” (21)
And the boat comes to represent the mother’s sense of bitterness at the fact that neither the father nor the son is able to sustain the fisherman’s life. Jenny Lynn represents the erosion of a way of life and the loss of an enduring tradition.
The narrator and the boat
Throughout The Boat, the narrator plays with time shifts as he impresses upon readers the fact that although he is describing a young boy who was always aware of his place within a seafaring household, such knowledge is only gradually revealed. “I say this now as if I knew it all then. All at once… But of course it was not that way at all, for I learned it all very slowly and there was not time enough”.
For example, the young boy/narrator learns about the importance of the boat after his first ride with his father, described as a “precocious excursion”. All the villagers’ questions ended with “the boat” and “I knew it must be very important to everyone”. And it is the 16 year old boy who takes the uncle’s place and joins the father for the important “May the first” lobster season. All their lives “depended on the boat” and the young boy, who at one stage watched the trawlers from the high school hill, soon bids farewell to “The Tempest and “David Copperfield”. MacLeod’s narrator must make a choice between the two things “I loved so dearly” which excluded each other “in a manner that was so blunt and too clear”.
The narrator remembers that his awareness of boat and of people are mutually dependent and although the narrator tells of the father’s ambiguous relationship with the sea, at first, the memories of father and boat are etched in his mind as of one who smells of the salt and wears huge rubber boots. The memory is of a man who has become the fisherman he resents. “My earliest recollection of my father is a view from the floor of gigantic rubber boots and then of being suddenly elevated and having my face pressed against the stubble of his cheek, and of how it tasted of salt and of how he smelled of salt from his red-soled rubber boots to the shaggy whiteness of his hair” (2)
His earliest recollections of “my mother” are also associated with her supportive role as she is always organising the food “to be eaten in the boat”. Whilst the fishermen become embroiled in the daily life of the boat, it is the women who name them and who own the traditions. “Most of the boats berthed at the wharf bore the names of some female member of their owner’s household”.
Jenny Lynn and The Mother
Jenny Lynn, which belongs to “us” and represents “our people”, links the narrator’s mother to the seafaring tradition on Cape Breton (she is “of the sea as were all of her people”) and this gives her a sense of place which she maintains, proudly, through discipline and routine. “My mother ran her house as her brothers ran their boats. Everything was clean and spotless and in order.” (5) She is therefore firmly rooted in, and limited to, the place, that defines her. “Her horizons were the very literal ones she scanned with her dark and fearless eyes.” (6)
The Mother meticulously devotes herself to domestic chores, baking bread, and knitting. She energetically responds to a demanding environment, raising “broods of hens”, hoisting her skirt to “dig for clams when the tide was low” and walking for miles on berry-picking expeditions. The sea determines the rhythm of her whole life including her affections, to such an extent that she comes to look “upon the sea with love and on you (son) with bitterness because the one has been so constant and the other so untrue”. (25)
As MacLeod so poignantly shows, the mother’s energetic spirit dominates the kitchen and the kitchen becomes the “buffer zone” that separates order from chaos, and the multitude from the “single room that was my father’s.” The kitchen is “where we really lived our lives”; it is breezy, open and visible to all.
Contrastingly, the father yearns for a life that is beyond the constraints of his natural environment as symbolised by the light that shines “constantly from his window to the sea”. His room “of disorder and disarray” reflects his yearning spirit and the desire for a life of the imagination that is always elsewhere. He seems out of place, “massive and incongruous in the setting” and the personified wind that sweeps through his room aiding the clutter mocks his escapist tendencies. (“It was as if the wind which so often clamoured about the house succeeded in entering this single room and after whipping it into turmoil stole quietly away to renew its knowing laughter from without”.) If the mother is comfortably “of the sea”, the father is restless and he sleeps fitfully.
Books and yearnings
MacLeod depicts the father’s room as one defined by the magazines and books that cover every conceivable space, even the “knowable cave beneath the bed”.
For this reason, his mother who does not understand the books and who despises the room “and all that it stood for”, resents this “rock of opposition” and books such as Ivanhoe that are such a “colossal waste of time”.
She does not seek to kindle her imagination or extend her horizons: “She had not read a book since high school.” (8) She scorns her husband and her daughters who, restlessly, look for a life elsewhere, just as she scorns the life of the imagination and books, which to her are “useless” “trash”. “She had not read a book since high school” and the imaginative world is one that “she could not understand”.
The books also define the father’s relationships – the alienation from his wife and his intimacy with his daughters all of whom gravitate to the life of the imagination, and “one by one discovered by father’s bedroom, and then the change would begin”. Their “spellbound” attitude to the lives lived elsewhere is the beginning of the end for the mother, who is always aware of the work to be done. The change – the distaste of “darning socks and baking bread” leads the sisters away from the mother, from the island, and on a journey to more civilised places, sending books back to the father. Each of the sisters, after 15 years, depart the mother’s control and attract her censure. The mother does not approve of any of their suitors, who are not fisherman, and who appear to the mother as lazy or “effeminate” or “dishonest” because of their inability to do any physical work. “And in the end she did not really care, for they were not of her people and they were not of her sea.”
And eventually the books foreshadow his doom as chaos reigns. “The room was now so filled with books as to be almost Dickensian, but he would not allow my mother to move or change them”.
The tourists and elsewhere
The Mother’s possessive, proud and territorial streak seeks to engulf the offspring in her wake. She rejects the tourists, the visitors in the restaurants,, not caring about anyone who was not of her people or “of her sea” and wears only the clothes that were of the place. Those that kindled another time and place were locked up in a trunk.
Father encourages his daughters to seek a life outside the haven of the home, which leads to mingling with tourists in the restaurants that are not run by “our people”, the people “of the sea”. “My mother had each of her daughters for fifteen, then lost them for two and finally forever”.
The “taken-in-Cuba pictures of Hemingway” sent by the tourists to the father capture his incongruity and sense of otherness. The tourists, who regard the father as a Gaelic relic and sight-seeing object of interest, catch the conspiratorial air that so enrages the mother as the father sings for hours and turns his back on the sea, “which was behind him “. He is not only too big and bulky and awkward in his fisherman’s clothes but he even seems too large for the photograph. The sea stretching into the sky, “seemed very far away from him or else he was so much in the foreground that he seemed too big for it”.
His “bulky fisherman’s clothes were too big for the green and white lawn chair in which he sat, and his rubber boots seemed to take up all of the well-clipped grass square.”
The father burned in the sun and his bracelets of brass which were meant to protect from “chafing” seemed “abnormally large”. The father’s reddish complexion that never tanned set him apart from the naturally difficult life of the fisherman, exposed to the rugged elements and foreshadows his death. He wonders if perhaps his father “had never been intended for a fisherman either physically or mentally” (21).
“My father did not tan – he never tanned – … and the salt water irritated his skin as it had for sixty years. He burned and reburned over and over again”. “My father never approved of their playing about the wharf like other children”.
Father hopes that his son, who also shares his love of learning, will journey along an educational path. However, the son begins to see finishing high school as a “silly shallow selfish dream”
Progress, change and fear
For the father, the sea and seafaring represent what is incomplete in their lives — what is wrong with “all our lives”. There is a lack that seems to dog them, as does a bitter sense of disappointment that is ambiguously projected onto the landscape. The father, who “never really loved it,” looks at the sea, “in hatred” and “in love”. The sea also forces the narrator to confront his own fears. “I am afraid to be alone with death”.
And the narrator realises that “there were many things wrong with all of us and all our lives” and his admiration for his father’s courage and loyalty to his failed dreams set him up in opposition to his mother whose “iron-tipped harpoons” he tries to resist, “because he was a failure as a husband and a father who had retained none of his own.”
This territorial fisherman withstand the onslaught of commercial trawlers and ‘twice they have gone away”. For them (the men and women/ mother) know that the “grounds are sacred”.
As testimony to his failed dreams, the father is drowned at sea. When the son notices his absence on the stern, he expects the worst: “I turned and he was not there and I knew even in that instant that he would never be again.” As one who is not “of the sea”, the father is dashed against the rocks, symbolising the erosion of the mother’s constant way of life. The violent death sums up the father’s hostile and antagonistic relationship with the sea, in which he had no option but to immerse himself even though he like most fishermen, cannot swim.
When his body was found it had been hurled and slammed so many times against the rock, and s-strewn so violently against the cliffs, that there was only bits and pieces left. There was not much left of him physically apart from the “brass chains on his wrists”, which recall the fisherman’s life.
The “seaweed in his hair” captures the father’s return to nature and his ambiguous relationship with the sea that finally claimed him.
The young boy who is caught in-between
Callum focuses on his formative years, from 10 to 15 years of age, during which he becomes embroiled in his parents’ savage arguments and tries to negotiate his own place amidst the love and hatred that swirls between them.
He reflects upon this tension that explains why his Father never left despite himself. Whenever he returns he feels the dead weight of his father’s lost dreams and the mother’s strong sense of resentment and a personal feeling of betrayal. He must be “so untrue” because he did not follow her and love the sea. Whilst Callum understands the tension, it does not make it any easier.
He understands his mother’s bitterness and spite. He follows her resentment as she holds a “satisfied” father responsible should the girls came home “knocked up”. She blames the father for kindling a sense of hope that cannot be fulfilled by the bitter-sweet rhythms of a fisherman’s life. But more than anything she fears the inconstancy that unsettles her routine and hence her secure sense of place.
Callum understands his father who projects onto his family his own sense of entrapment and suffocation and pleads with them to find an escape. He knows that he, like his sisters, all bear the imprint of his father’s yearning for an escape, fiercely forbidden by his mother.
Callum also understands his mother’s desire for permanence, for the continuity of sea-faring traditions, and for the desire to withstand the changing tides of time.
He feels an affinity with the sea just like his mother with “the damp, moist mackerels with their silver glassy eyes”. He remembers his first ride on the boat, his favourite summers, and smells the odour of mackerels.
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The Vastness of the Dark
The narrator (James) contemplates his “in-between” status as he reflects upon the doomed life of the coal-miners. For generations, fathers have been doomed to the “vastness of the dark”, and in the future, it seems there is little to look forward to, apart from a life of dashed hopes, drink and depression. For example, James relates the story of the “buried men” and the loss of family members during the mine tragedy (52) which reinforces the sense of doom and darkness.
James’ father’s hands are damaged as a reflection of the darkness that eventually envelops most of the mine-workers in one way or another. The dynamite stick at the little mine where he used to work ripped the first two fingers from his scarred right hand. (27) He has one good hand left, and father an accident that have to pray that his tendons will not be damaged. (37) The father’s injury and his clenched hands that had to open “so that they could pour iodine” on the wound whilst the father prays, reading Great Expectations.
James is given the gift of an education; he completes high school which he realizes offers him a better chance than most (38)
The two contrasting attitudes to place that feature so prominently in many of the stories in Island are evident here as encapsulated by the two different letters from his grandparents (43). One is angry and one is fearful. One has a strong distaste towards the coalmining environment and the other who “loves” the coal (56) perhaps out of a sense of necessity. The grandfather urges the boy’s father to return to the mine and take his place among generations of miners.
The grandfather’s attitude has a selfish aspect: he is pleased that someone can replace him. (31) The grandmother begs his father not to return as the mines will soon be finished and he will have no life. In his typical sparse prose, Macleod’s narrator reflects upon the circumstances of his birth: “We all like to think of ourselves as children of love rather than of necessity.” (32)
When James takes his leave from his grandfather he is aware of the strength of his hands. (45) and then he feels “I am free” and he feels as if he is ready for a “new identity”. And as he journeys in different cars, first from Cape Breton, and then further away, he feels as if he is becoming reinvented, but at the same time, he is becoming aware of just how much he is a product of place (49). The “packsack” becomes a symbol of the journey and the escape from Cape Breton and from the mines.
Throughout the typical strong sense of tradition is evident. The grandfather explains that there is little chance of escape. “Once you start, it takes a hold of you, once you drink underground water, you will always come back to drink some more.” The water gets in your blood. It is in all of our blood. We have been working in the mines here since 1873.” (35) “It’s in the blood”
The house is blackened with the coal-dust from generations of miners. (41) And yet the grandparents’ place provides a haven for the narrator from the turmoil of home.
The narrator has an ambivalent attitude towards the mine, but in some weird way he suspects that it is better to have a place that one despises, than to have no place at all. (36) (Notice the ambivalence and sparse dialogue!)
It’s in the blood: the narrator’s search for place and a sense of self
The narrator reflects upon his own attitude to place given these two poignantly contrasting attitudes. There is a sense of being a “prisoner all my life” but he is also a part of, and distinct from the place as symbolized by his position in the family. He is set apart from his siblings. (29)
The author ends the story with the suggestion that he may work in the uranium mines, which reinforces the grandfather’s sentiment that ‘it’s in the blood’
He has the idea that “going away was just a “physical thing” but it is also a psychological displacement and he wonders if you can ever truly emotionally distance oneself from the mining environment. (55)