Book Thoughts: The Shipping News

The Shipping News was a 1993 novel by Annie Proulx. I had to get this book for a high school literature class. I was surprised re-reading it to see some of the mature things in it. This was not a kids book. I don’t think I would let a kid read it, even a teenager. Some of the stuff that I didn’t understand at the time I do now. The book was pretty clear that these things were bad, but it was still stuff I don’t think kids should be reading in graphic detail about.

Anyways, I found the book both then and now to be slow reading. The dialogue was pretty good, but the author’s descriptions took forever to read. The language just didn’t flow. I would speed through the dialogue then stumble over the description. The author had lots of incomplete sentences. When describing things she sometimes used words that would normally mean something else. Like describing a color, she wouldn’t say “the sky was red”. She would say “barn sky”. I then had to understand that a barn is a rust red color, and the sky was that color. It took more thinking to get through the text.

Now, I believe veteran readers like the serious critics love this kind of writing. They want to really have to think while they read. They don’t want to just read the whole book in a day. They want it to be more like the Bible, where they have to really analyze everything to get a good sense of the meaning. I am the opposite. I think all writing should be clear and concise. I’m perfectly fine with the author using big words or rarely used words that I don’t know, but words should be used according to their definitions. A barn is a noun not an adjective. Basically, Proulx broke the rules of grammar in many parts of the book. I don’t like it.

Things weren’t helped by the fact that the book started out really depressive. The main character, Quoyle, has had a hard life. Nothing had ever been easy for him. As a child his father and brother picked on him. As an adult he never really found anything he was good at. He kind of just stumbled through life accepting whatever happened. He fell in love with a woman, but after only a month being together, she was out every night with another man. They had two children. Quoyle lost his job. Then his girlfriend died in a car accident, leaving him to do all the childrearing himself. The beginning was constantly sad and depressing. It wasn’t fun to read. Things did improve though.

Quoyle’s aunt was moving to their old family house in Newfoundland. Since Quoyle had lost everything, he decided to go with her. The rest of the book was about Quoyle slowly repairing the wounds caused by all these setbacks in his life. It was a typical story, but it worked. About halfway through the book, I was finally interested to keep reading. Before that point, I pretty much had to force myself to keep reading. Annie Proulx did a great job with the characters. They were all pretty unique and all entertaining to listen to. Some of them were bad people and others were good, but they were all genuine. They felt real. Proulx also injected bits of comedy into the later parts which kept things moving nicely. I wish the first half of the book were this good.

Newfoundland was a good setting. I’ve never been there, but I have been to the west coast a lot. I’m familiar with the small beach town setting. It’s always chilly, even many summer days. Everything gets a film of salt on it from the high humidity and water. The elements deteriorate everything quickly. Modern society has encroached on it. The old industries are not in demand, so all the job sources are gone. Most people living there are retired, working in tourist jobs, or self-sustaining with farming or fishing. Knowing these things made it easier. I could skim through the slow descriptions knowing what the author meant without having to fully understand every word.

Another thing I loved was the little definitions before each chapter. These could be a description of a knot, a mariner’s definition, or some other reference material that fit the small fisherman’s town theme throughout the book. Not only that, the definition directly had to do with the subject matter in the chapter. Each chapter had a title too, but every book has that. These little tidbits of information were unique. I’ve never seen this in another book. It was a fun exercise to predict what the definition or knot meant in the chapter I was about to read.

Most of the things I liked about the book were after Quoyle and his aunt moved to Newfoundland. The early part of the book in the United States was thick with slow-to-read descriptions and sad events. I give Quoyle credit for not giving up. I’m don’t know what I’d do in some the situations he was in. I was very happy when that part was over, but even when they were in Newfoundland, it took a long time for the book to get interesting. This was a new setting with new characters and new histories that all had to be described. It was hard reading all those descriptions.

I wonder if Annie Proulx consciously wrote this way or if this is just how she thinks. I know I could associate particular video games with colors, sounds, foods, and feelings because I’ve played so many of them for long hours. However, I would never expect others to make those same connections. They are unique to me. It’s the same with Proulx’s writing. She has connections in her head between various objects, feelings, sounds, and more. While some of them are probably shared by most humans many of them are probably unique to her. When she wrote about them I didn’t always make those same connections. I don’t know what she meant sometimes. I see both sides to this though.

On one hand is the artist. They create their art and whoever likes it can examine it. On the other hand, are people that like the artist’s work and want the artist adapt to their interests. Some people will say the artist should please the audience. Others will say the artist should do what they want, for audience influence tarnishes the purity of their art. The ideas are no longer the artist’s but the audiences. I can see that, but I tend towards pleasing the audience. It goes back to my faith. I want everyone to understand exactly what I mean, so they can learn the truth and believe. That doesn’t mean I compromise everything, but I do compromise a little. That’s one definition of love. It’s not all about myself; I need to reach out to people sometimes. God calls all people to love one another.

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