"We all don't get what we deserve, nor for that matter deserve what we gets,” Bertha Corrigan says when she needs to stop her daughter’s complaints. But this recurring clever remark is more than a rebuke. Repeated so often, it seems to be the creed of her life and, by extension, the thread that runs through the lives of the Corrigan women.
When Bertha Ryan arrives at the Cove early in the twentieth century, she unknowingly meshes her future with that of the Corrigan family. Not yet sixteen, she has come to keep house for the old woman and her two adult sons. The younger son, Ned, is responsible both for his sick mother as well as his incompetent older brother. Bertha seems to be his pass to freedom, and he plans to ease his burdens onto her and escape to Grand Falls.
Bertha has left a home that can no longer support her and has few dreams other than the hope of making a living. However, her world is changed utterly when she is attacked and raped. The two brothers volunteer for service in the First World War shortly after that, leaving her to cope with an embarrassing pregnancy and their mother’s mental deterioration.
Ned survives, but any hopes for his future are destroyed. One of the most poignant and remarkable passages in the book is the one in which his shell-shocked mind relives his last battle--trying to free the mangled body of his brother from a barbed wire fence while listening to the other men dying around him. His marriage to Bertha and the birth of a son barely touch him, locked as he is in the horror of those moments. His shattered life casts a shadow over the family.
All this sounds rather grim, but presenting the plot so starkly does not do the novel justice. It's like saying that beef bourguignon is made of dead cow and fungus. This novel is so much more than the sum of its plot points--its glory is in the music of its language, the truthfulness of its setting, and the richness of its characters.
Bertha in particular shows an admirable strength in responding to the blows of life. As she stands in the centre of the family's tragedies, from her husband's death to her son's sickness and her daughter's terrible disappointment in marriage, she has neither self pity nor the desire to be a saint. Just the calm courage of a person who perseveres, even though it seems that all her choices have been made for her.
It is an epic novel in one sense, spanning three generations and encompassing world events. But it's also a homely narrative that concerns itself with the small loves and losses of one family in a bleak Newfoundland outport. World wars or Confederation are notable events only as they define the central characters. The author avoids two errors in books of this scale. She doesn't inflict a sprawling mess of storylines on us, nor does she suck the life out of her characters by summarize major portions of their lives.
Instead, she reveals their stories in a series of montages, like the quilt with which Bertha preserves her memories. The moments seem perfectly chosen to reveal one more layer of a character. And the pictures she paints with her words are incredibly evocative, particularly when they describe the cold. From the bleakness of a winter funeral to the frosted nails of a child's bedroom in winter, the scenes are so perfect that you can feel them. She draws on what she knows. Although long a resident of Fredericton, Ms. Dohaney grew up in a small community in Newfoundland and faithfully portrays the language and the life of such a town.
For some reason I can’t understand, this book has been out of print since 1988. Goose Lane has done a good service in repairing that oversight, introducing The Corrigan Women
to a whole new generation of readers.