"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Saturday, August 11, 2012

On Re-Reading Andrea Barrett's "Ship Fever"

I returned from Montreal on Tuesday night, after a truly excellent conference meeting of the International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures. An amazing ten days in a city I'd never been to before, exploring not just the newer downtown areas of Montreal but Old Montreal as well, the sites of the World's Fair and the Olympics. But then, after the conference, I went on the post-conference tour to Quebec City and Grosse Ile. It's been nearly a week since I was there and I'm still struggling to find words for the experience. And so, as I'm unpacking my Jeep in Lincoln and trying to remember where things go in my apartment after being gone all summer, I pulled out Andrea Barrett's Ship Fever and felt the need to reread the story "Ship Fever."

 I've written before about that strangely intimate experience of reading a book in its setting--and if you haven't tried it, you must--and that experience doesn't change much if you read something after you've been to the setting.  Most of my memories of Grosse Ile right now are sensory and tactile, the absolute oppression of the sun, the way the wind picked up at a very specific moment (more on that in a moment), the movement of the ferry on the St. Lawrence River, the notes that Patrick pulled from his pipe, his flute.  I have much to write about Patrick, our musician, and Grosse Ile, but that's for another time, another place.


We arrived at Berthier Sur Mer about 45 minutes after leaving Quebec City and we had about an hour before the ferry would take us to Grosse Ile.  Grosse Ile is one of several islands in an archipelago in the St. Lawrence River, not the largest, and it was the quarantine station for the port of Quebec from 1835-1937.  It was never an immigration station, like Ellis Island; its sole purpose was to evaluate the immigrants for illness, specifically the ones most likely to lead to epidemics (cholera, typhus), quarantine them on the island until they passed inspection, and then they could go on to Quebec City or Montreal.  As we approached the island, an immense stone cross dominated our vision.

Grosse Ile, from the ferry.

This is the Irish Memorial Cross, erected in 1909, to honor the nearly 5500 Irish who are buried on Grosse Ile.  Here's the thing about Grosse Ile that stung me first:  In the whole of the island's 105 year history, there are 7553 buried on the island (they are very deliberate about saying buried, not died--more on that later) and 5424 of those died in 1847 in a six-month period.  These were overwhelmingly Irish, fleeing the worst of the Great Famine.  Reread that.  Three quarters of those who are buried on Grosse Ile died during six months, mostly of the typhus epidemic.  Most years, Grosse Ile processed 20,000-30,000 immigrants--but in 1847, the number was closer to 100,000.  There wasn't room for that many healthy people, let alone sick.  This is intellectual knowledge, not knowledge in your bones.  There's a difference.

We got a very brief history of the island from our tour guide, Pierre-Loup, and then we walked in the incredible heat, the umbrellas we'd brought against warnings of rain raised against the sun.  Then the rise of the landscape changed and at first all we could see was a mowed expanse and a picket fence.  And then the wooden crosses inside the fence came into focus, large white crosses placed at odd intervals.  We followed Pierre-Loup up the hill until we could fix the entire expanse in our field of vision.  What we were seeing was still not clear--I mean, I assumed it was a cemetery, but then Pierre-Loup told us what we were looking at.  

Yes, this is the Irish cemetery and there are nearly 5,000 people buried here.  I could probably have figured that out on my own.  But what I couldn't comprehend was what I was looking at and I blamed it on the heat, the fact I had no personal connection to what was happening here.

And then, what Pierre-Loup was saying finally clicked:  yes, this a the mass grave.  That much I could understand.  But I assumed that the people were buried on the raised portions of the cemetery--but that's not right.  Everyone who died on the island got a coffin and they all got their own coffin.  The coffins are buried three deep here.  And when the coffins and the bodies began to decompose, the land collapsed.  So the people are buried in those spaces where the land dips.  For some reason, that froze my mind in place.  I had no more thoughts, no more associations.  

Memorial for the physicians who died tending the sick, 1847.

And then Patrick began to play a lament.  Margaret read a poem.  And some of our group began to weep.  I did not.  But I let Patrick's music grieve for me.

Cholera Bay, 
where ships carrying cholera docked, away from the main wharf

So, then, rereading "Ship Fever" after seeing the landscape for myself was, again, that incredibly intimate experience I've come to recognize as what happens when you know a book's setting.  I tried to imagine the St. Lawrence choked with tall-masted ships, the water thick with debris tossed overboard in an attempt to ease the quarantine inspection, all the human voices, the smells of the bodies, the sickness, the death, the constant burials and the constant hammering of coffins.  But as I read the story of Lauchlin Grant, Nora, Susannah, and the other characters, I knew the landscape of their stories, knew it as it was windblown into the pores of my skin and baked by the sun.  It matters that now I know what the approach to Grosse Ile looked like, felt like.  It matters that now I know what happened here, how it happened, because now I know what Grosse Ile felt like, to me.  It's a type of empathy, but not quite.  And so "Ship Fever" is all the more affective to me, because now I know the bedrock of Barrett's words planted into that soil.

So, today's question:  what works of literature have you read in its setting (or works whose setting you know intimately)--what is your experience of reading when you know the landscape the writer is writing about?


  1. I had great fun reading a strange and quirky Julian Gough novel called Jude: Level 1 that takes place in Galway (right down to the Super Mac) but my fav was when my friend Nick and I read "The Wild Swans at Coole" to the wild swans at Coole Park with our students

  2. Vivian Valvano LynchAugust 12, 2012 at 11:13 AM

    Oh, my: I've read authors in their settings many times. I've always found it to be a wonderful experience. The first time I went to Dublin, I made sure to re-read DUBLINERS, a bit each night. One of my favorite experiences was reading p
    arts of Thoreau's WALDEN at Walden Pond. I've been known to have a copy of LEAVES OF GRASS in Brooklyn, to be able to read some of the sections about Brooklyn and the sight of Mannahatta from Brooklyn. Years ago, I used go to the Walt Whitman birthday celelbration at his birthplace in Huntington, Long Island; there would always be readings, but I would find a quiet spot for a little while and read, too.