The Shipping News: A Novel by Annie Proulx (New York: Scribner, 1993. 352 pp)

Born in Norwich, Connecticut, Annie Proulx earned her B.A. at the University of Vermont and her M.A. from Concordia University. While working as a journalist, Proulx published works of fiction in various magazines before publishing her first novel, Postcards, in 1992, winning her the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Of her many awards, she notably won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for The Shipping News and she adapted her short-story, Brokeback Mountain, into an award-winning feature film. She currently resides in Wyoming.

The Dinner Table 

There’s something pristine about a populated dinner table. The scent of freshly prepared food. The peace of a successful day finally completed. The joy of hearing about a family member’s day.

In many ways, a meal functions as the focal point of our social lives; we unite under the common need for sustenance. While reading The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, I couldn’t help but think that the dinner table unites the threads of this novel.

But before we explore the importance of food, let’s develop a plot. Set mostly in Killick-Claw, a small town on the wind-battered coast of Newfoundland. Our protagonist, Quoyle, contributes “the shipping news” to the local newspaper, The Gammy Bird. Escaping the drama and pain around the death of his scorned wife, Quoyle journeys with his daughters, Bunny and Sunshine, and his aunt to the eastern Canadian island of his ancestors in hopes of beginning life anew.

An Average Man

By all definitions, Quoyle is an average man. In fact, Quoyle’s only positive contribution to society resides in his effect on others:

“The truth was Punch had noticed that Quoyle, who spoke little himself, inspired talkers. His only skill in the game of life. His attentive posture, his flattering nods urged waterfalls of opinion, reminiscence, recollection, theorizing, guesstimating, exposition, synopsis and explication, juiced the life stories out of strangers” (9).

Having found gainful employment in Killick-Claw at The Gammy Bird, Quoyle seeks to integrate his family into community life. His daughters befriend children their age; Quoyle creates relationships with his co-workers; and he becomes enamored with a single mother named Wavey Prose.

Abrupt Descriptions of Natural Beauty 
Photo by Thibault Roland

Aside from all these strange names, Proulx spends extensive page-space amplifying the natural and dangerous beauty of this Newfoundland town. With terse descriptive phrases escaped from verbs, Proulx’s writing style is distinct.

“These waters, thought Quoyle, haunted by lost ships, fishermen, explorers gurgled down into sea holes as black as a dog’s throat. Vikings down the cracking winds, steering through fog by the polarized light of sun-stones. The Inuit in skin boats, breathing, breathing, rhythmic suck of frigid air, iced paddles dipping, spray freezing, sleek back rising, jostle, the boat torn, spiraling down. Millennial bergs from the glaciers, morbid, silent except for waves breaking on their flanks, the deceiving sound of shoreline where there was no shore. Foghorns, smothered gun reports along the coast. Ice welding land to sea. Frost smoke. Clouds mottled by reflections of water holes in the plains of ice. The glare of ice erasing dimension, distance, subjecting senses to mirage and illusion. A rare place” (209).

Food Means Family

Having considered the plot, food truly unites this novel. Every chapter revolves around breakfast, lunch, or dinner. As characters interact and plot progresses, the events remain disproportionately glued to the dinner table and the rhythms of sustenance.

“A platter of fried herrings with bacon rashers and hashed potatoes. A quart jar of mustard. Beety back and forth, stepping over Warren the Second who wished to live forever beneath the tablecloth or with the boots but could not decide. Quoyle and Wavey were supper guests, full of kind laughter and praise for what they ate. Boiled cabbage. And blueberry tarts to finish, with cream. Double helpings from every dish for Quoyle. Although the cabbage would produce gas” (325).

In all honesty, I did not love The Shipping News. Despite intriguing characters and a beautiful setting, I found the plot rather boring and Proulx’s terse writing style crafty, yet laborious. Nevertheless, I affirm Proulx’s attempt to root her story around the dinner table. Quite often when we pause to remember our day over a steaming platter of goodness, we generate an element of thankfulness. The Shipping News is well-written; its prose and characters offer ample evidence for its place as Pulitzer Prize winner. But, the book wasn’t for me.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

Posted by: Donovan Richards
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