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PROLOGUE

IN JUNE OF 1915, LIKE EVERY JUNE, Captain John Bowering of Coley’s Point, Newfoundland, set sail on the Swallow for the season’s fishing in Labrador. By the time he and his crew were ready to return home at the end of October, the ship was so full of fish that some of the sailors were left behind to return on the Lorna Doone.

Mid dangers thick, seen and unseen,
On waves which smash our barque,—
A sailor’s life is hard indeed;
And oft’ the way seems dark.

His ballad “Trip of the Ill-Fated Swallow” was printed by someone in the family in little twenty-page booklets, covered in red card stock. In the tiny type he tells me, his great-granddaughter, the story in quaint rhyme.

Now all on board, — ready to sail,
That fine October day;

All hoped a breeze of North West wind,
Would hurry us on our way.

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My parents left Newfoundland when they were twenty-three. They were not fishers pushed by empty nets, outport people in search of black prairie gold. But Alberta called them nevertheless, with a residency at the U of A Hospital for Dad and a whole province pulsing with oil money. Four thousand people a month came in those days. My parents did not plan to stay in Edmonton. They have never left.

My parents had aunts and uncles who moved to Calgary and Vancouver in the ’40s. A brother already in Winnipeg. More of the family would follow them, to Grande Prairie, Fort St. John, Houston. The population of the province is only half a million, and they say that more than 200,000 Newfoundlanders live “away.” But that 200,000 does not include the children of Newfoundlanders born in Toronto, or Boston, or Fort McMurray. I am one of that unknown number who grew up hearing Newfoundland called “home.”

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Jean Chaulk was just sixteen when she set sail aboard the merchant schooner The Duchess of Fife in September of 1907. A maid working in St. John’s, catching a ride home to her family, she may have been the only passenger, a favour from her cousin on the crew.

We left St. John’s on Monday morn,
Our spirits were light and gay.
We were bound home to Brookland,
In Bonavista Bay.

Her poem “The Loss of the Duchess of Fife” is typed on plain legal paper, photocopied many times and curling at the edges. I don’t know who typed the poem, or when.

While Carbonear we reached that night,
And early left next morn,
To run for Catalina,
As our captain feared the storm.

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It must mean something that my great-grandparents on either side of my family wrote poems. It must mean that despite a distance of a hundred years and three thousand miles, there is a connection between us that runs deeper than the DNA. A line that I can follow back across a continent.

When I was growing up, I was angry with my parents for leaving Newfoundland. I wrote sentimental stories and poems set there, describing the pattern of tide against the rocky shore or the smell of salt in the air. On visits from St. John’s, my grandfather told tales of a conspiracy behind Confederation, how St. John’s was draped in black on the day Newfoundland joined Canada. We were taught in school that Canada is a mosaic. My friends were Ukrainian, Indian, Chinese—we were all born in Edmonton. My heritage was Newfoundland. This was where I looked for rootedness, a kind of belonging.
      Make no wonder, my mother might say.
      Make no wonder. I was a grown woman before I knew that that was a Newfoundlandism, adding on the “make” to that certain phrase.

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While here upon the trackless deep,
So far away from home;
The thought comes forcibly to my mind,
We know not where we’ll roam.

As the Swallow was heading toward home, the weather turned. A gale charged in, the seas began to pummel her sides. One by one the sails burst under the hurricane winds. The heavy sea swept the wheel aside and the foremast threatened to topple.

As The Duchess of Fife approached the harbour at Catalina, the storm the captain had feared surrounded her, wrenching away the main boom, leaving the schooner to drift all night in the taunting swells.
      Both ships were left to the mercy of the wind.