Blackstrap Hawco by Kenneth J. Harvey

[5 February 2009]

By Zachary Houle

Blackstrap Hawco is a novel with a lot of hype associated with it. If the front flap of the book is to be believed, it took Kenneth J. Harvey 15 years to write it, and it clocks in at an epic masterwork length of more than 800 pages. It purports to be probably the first sweeping generational epic of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and its peoples, and is a “transcomposite narrative”, meaning that it is neither a historical document, nor a work of outright fiction. This element would make would-be readers assume the novel is a bit of an enigma, and worth puzzling out the elements that might be true, or related by Harvey’s friends and relatives, from the ones that are pure invention. Alas, the book is probably too long by half to make the narrative worth puzzling over.

The book, naturally given its name, centers around the character of Blackstrap Hawco, who is a bit of a picaresque everyman. He is also something of a folk hero for surviving disaster on the high seas (and saving a man in the process) and for also going after Portuguese fishing boats with a cannon due to their over-fishing miles away offshore. Blackstrap has his flaws, however: he can’t keep one lover for very long, he finds himself getting into scrapes with the law, and he is completely illiterate. In short, he is probably something of a typical “Newfie,” one who feels great love and compassion for his island home, and the seal hunting and fishing lifestyle associated with it, but is torn about finding a better life and better jobs off on the mainland.

The novel is divided into three sections. The first section offers narratives about the title character’s ancestors, siblings and lovers, and moves back and forth between different time periods (back even into the late 1800s) and styles of voice. The second section is all Blackstrap’s story from the early ‘70s up until the mid-‘90s, and this is where the book finally settles down into a cohesive, linear narrative. The third, and smallest section of the book, is a series of confusing epilogues – one of which is written in a sort of Leet speak, believe it or not – which brings the story up to the present day, and beyond. (The book ends on an acknowledgements section ‘written’ by a descendant, one Jacob Hawco IV, in the year 2042.)

It is the first section of the book that is the most appealing, and hard to put down, even though it is also the most hyperactive and sometimes the most confusing with all its literary flourishes. The stories of this section compose most of the excitement and dread to be found in Blackstrap Hawco: stories of disaster on sealing expeditions, stories of unrequited love between the town merchant and Blackstrap’s mother, stories of getting stuck on rabbit trap lines. (Another section here that has Blackstrap simply attending a street party is one of the most profound portraits of Newfoundland life to be found in the novel.) 

Where the novel ultimately fails, however, is that it is perhaps too clever for its own good. The differences in narrative style don’t seem to further the story so much as flourish for flourish’s sake. And Blackstrap’s story in the second half of the book is particularly disappointing and non-riveting as he pines for a past lover seemingly for much of it. Not much happens in Blackstrap’s life, and when it does (like in the sea rescue from an oil rig), Harvey’s writing style doesn’t ratchet up the tension. Instead, the extraordinary things that happen to Blackstrap and his family are treated no better than a walk around the block.

It’s hard to know what’s happening at certain points of the narrative, as one’s concentration on the poorly written sections of the story tends to waver as a result. In fact, most of the action comes in tossed-off references many pages after the fact, such as the murder of one of Blackstrap’s many ladies, which we are only 100 percent certain has happened towards the end of the book.

What’s also particularly disappointing is that Blackstrap Hawco lacks any sort of political leaning. Blackstrap is born in the early 1950s, at a time when Newfoundland had just become a Province of Canada. One might expect that the trajectory of Blackstrap’s life would somehow closely resemble that of the province, but most of the main events of its history – such as the closing of the fisheries, the relocation of outlying coastal communities and so on – take a back seat in the narrative, only to be relegated to background and window dressing. The characters complain about Newfoundland Premier Joey Smallwood and his policies, but we’re never really fully sure what the characters have against him.

In short, it’s hard to knock Blackstrap Hawco. One has to admire the tenacity of a writer who took 15 years to write a book. But one additionally has to wonder if all the effort expended on the novel was actually worth it, considering all of the sections of the narrative that seem to be just mere padding and dead weight. As noted above, the book could have been probably cut in half with no real damage to the story.

It’s a shame that Blackstrap Hawco expends so much energy just burning off the page count. There’s a gem of a story to be found here; you just have to stick around for the parts that count.

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