American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

THESHIPPINGNEWS (1993). A novel by E[dna]. Annie Proulx (1935- ), The Shipping News was awarded the 1993 National Book Award in fiction and the 1994 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Proulx, who lived in Vermont and Newfoundland at the time of writing The Shipping News, has since moved to Wyoming.

Consumed by feelings of inadequacy and failure, unemployed and recently widowed newspaperman R. G. Quoyle leaves Mockingburg, New York, and sets out with his aunt and two young daughters for Quoyle ’ s Point, the isolated site of his dead grandparents ’ home on Omaloor Bay in Newfoundland. Quoyle has a job as a reporter, covering car wrecks and the “shipping news” for the Gammy Bird, a sensationalist newspaper in the fishing village of Killick-Claw.

Throughout the novel, Quoyle wrestles with the problems of his new life, including the logistical difficulties of commuting across the bay and paying for the renovation of the decaying house on Quoyle’s Point. As he forges a new identity and develops self-reliance, Quoyle helps a local boatbuilder to craft a wooden rodney to replace his own poorly designed, secondhand boat, a lopsided craft that he uses in his daily crossings of the bay. The perils and pains that Quoyle endures in piloting his rickety boat and in building its replacement recall the canoe-building follies of Robinson Crusoe, in that the boat represents both the instrument and the impediment to his escape from Quoyle’s Point. In a metaphorical coda to Quoyle’s personal journey of sacrifice and renewal, a storm sweeps the ancestral house into the bay. In turn, Quoyle is able to shed the weighty, artificial connections to the house and its hard-living, incestuous former occupants.

Quoyle’s name, as Proulx points out in the first chapter’s epigraph, is an obsolete, alternative spelling for a coil of rope. Proulx builds on this nautical motif through other character names, including Quoyle’s love interest Wavey, and through subsequent chapter epigraphs, which are mostly explanations of various sailing knots and other terms taken from Clifford W. Ashley’s The Ashley Book of Knots (1944) and Gershom Bradford’s The Mariner’s Dictionary (1972; first pub. as A Glossary of Sea Terms, 1927).

The novel derives much of its energy and humor from the quirky, seagoing culture of Newfoundland. Among the Killick-Claw residents Quoyle encounters are Dawn, a young college graduate with a degree in pharology (the study of lighthouses* and signaling), and Nutbeem, the foreign-news editor who plans to escape the harsh winters of Newfoundland by sailing to Florida, a plan thwarted when his boat is destroyed by a merry drunken mob at his going-away party.

Although a self-conscious “headlinese” narrative style and Quoyle’s initial sense of alienation give The Shipping News a postmodern veneer, the hero’s spiritual and physical awakening, set against the unforgiving sea-bound environment of Newfoundland, recalls earlier works like Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Jack London’s* The Sea-Wolf* (1904), in which a sea journey serves as an impetus for character transformation and redemption. As several critics have noted, the icy and stormy waters uniting the diverse residents of Killick-Claw can be seen as an embryonic fluid for the rebirth of the urban-bred and malaise-ridden Quoyle. Proulx’s sea imagery and her depiction of the relationship with the sea in her coastal Newfoundland characters infuse this rich novel.

Brian Anderson