When Awe Meets Narrative: On Chasing Local Folklore at the Edge of the Ocean
In Which Emily Urquhart Explores Villain/Helper Tropes in a Small Maritime Town
The events of that summer happened a long time ago, in a place far away from where I live now. This is the setting and the time frame. Some of the plot points—let’s call them functions—have faded from memory, but this is natural. Twelve years have passed, and, in some ways, not that much has changed. For one, I still own some of the clothing that I did then. Like the dress I’ve got on today, which is faded and threadbare but works as a passable garment around the house. I have the same dog, too, although he’s quite old now and he was little more than a puppy then.
In other ways, though, my life is different. I live in a city on the mainland now and I’m no longer a student. Back then, I lived in St. John’s, on the shores of the North Atlantic, but I had relocated, along with Andrew, for the spring and summer to a small cove near Bonavista on an eastern peninsula of the island. This was so I could carry out fieldwork for my dissertation in folklore. During this time, I was closely reading the work of the early twentieth-century Russian structuralist Vladimir Propp, who, in his Morphology of the Folktale, noted that there are thirty-one separate plot points—which he calls functions—in a fairy tale. The first is that the protagonist leaves home.
The images and scenes from that summer remain vivid because I was recording everything that happened. I took notes about my new neighbors, their comings and goings, how they lived and where, and I made appointments to visit them with my recording equipment so I could ask them questions, capturing their answers in a small silver machine I’d borrowed from the university’s technology lab, and by taking notes in one of the many ringed notebooks I’d brought with me. I recorded whether they’d affixed a satellite dish to their homes so they could watch television, and what kind of art they hung on their walls.
In my ringed notebooks I made a drawing of each house I visited so I became familiar with the number of windows that faced the sea on a particular house, its color, which homes had a modern porch with chairs for sitting and watching the water and which ones had no porch at all. I was also keeping track of my observations and feelings about my environment and noted how these emotions morphed the longer I lived there. I was careful about what I wore during my interviews because this sometimes affected how the discussions with my neighbors went.I didn’t yet understand how the baby becomes your story and envelops whoever you thought you were before they arrived.
If I wore something that accentuated my pregnancy, for example, this might distract the person I was speaking with and influence their answers or derail their train of thought. For this reason, I tried to avoid wearing billowy empire-waist blouses or maternity dresses when I visited a neighbor with my recording equipment. I didn’t want my pregnancy to become part of the story. I was very serious then, I guess. I didn’t yet understand how the baby becomes your story and envelops whoever you thought you were before they arrived. I didn’t know this was inescapable. I was sharp then, but only as a scholar. In other ways, my education was just beginning.
In the months before I left for the cove, I would visit with my mentor, whose office was larger than those of other faculty members because he had so many books. He’d fashioned hallways out of his tall bookcases, and this gave the room a warren-like feel. As a young man, my mentor had done fieldwork in a small outport on the island’s southern shore. He’d made maps of the paths that neighbors took between each other’s homes when visiting; he’d recorded the direction their front doors faced, in which parts of their houses they tended to gather—which was, nearly always, the kitchen. It was a story of belonging.
I aimed to tell a modern version of this story, one that hadn’t existed when my mentor had lived on the southern shore. People from away were buying old fishing family homes for cheap and renovating them to look old-fashioned, stripping them of any modern improvements like wall-to-wall carpeting or a satellite dish. They came in summer and lived in an imagined past they and their ancestors had never experienced.There is no satisfying antonym to belonging, but in this case, it was the act of standing outside a history of suffering, of you and your ancestors not having suffered enough to belong to this landscape.
If my mentor’s story was about belonging, I seemed set to uncover its opposite. There is no satisfying antonym to belonging, but in this case, it was the act of standing outside a history of suffering, of you and your ancestors not having suffered enough to belong to this landscape. Suffering binds your body to the earth and water, and, also, to one another. I wanted to tell parallel stories—that of the seasonal people and the locals. To do this, like my mentor, I needed to move to a small community. I would settle, as he had settled thirty years earlier on a different shore.
My mentor told me something important before I left for the cove that summer. He said, “This is not going to happen again in your life. You won’t have a chance to examine a story that interests you to the depths that you will investigate and live with this story.” These were words from his mentor. He was passing them on to me. Both my mentor and his mentor were men. I am a woman, and I was pregnant. These words applied to me in a different way. I think my mentor and his mentor were referring to the intrusions of their academic careers, how teaching, meetings, and the general bureaucracy of a university can be the enemy of research, how little time there is left to slowly live with a story.
In a way my mentor was correct. In the future, motherhood would prevent me from doing fieldwork to the extent that I had that summer. But in another way, he was mistaken. The story I lived became the story I examined and wrote about. Have I thought of my mentor’s words every day since he shared this wisdom? Maybe that would be an exaggeration, but not a large one.
By mid-June, I’d recorded the arrival narratives of a nun, an artist, and several different couples and each story began the same way—the protagonist, or, the hero, as they would be named in Propp’s tale roles, left home and took a long journey. As with fairy tales, this was always the first function.
Next, through a twist of fate the hero discovered a beautiful house by the sea. Naturally, they wanted to possess this treasure. Owning the house was the narrative goal, and this success would mark the end of their story. At the outset, this seemed like a simple task because the rural homes that dotted the island’s coves were inexpensive. There was a joke back then that you could buy a house with the advance on your credit card, which, apparently, some tourist did once and then never returned. In my notebook I wrote: This rumor presents the story of a wealthy outsider commodifying a culture they feel no connection with.
Many of the houses the summer people purchased had been uninhabited for several decades. This was because the fish had disappeared from the ocean. This sounds like a fable or a magic story but it is really just a tragedy. The fish were casualties of industrialization, I wrote at the time. Also, it was not the fault of inshore fishermen based out of the island’s small coves, e.g., Wilson Brown’s ancestors.The fish had disappeared from the ocean. This sounds like a fable or a magic story but it is really just a tragedy. The fish were casualties of industrialization.
When the fisherpeople had nothing left, many of them walked away from their homes and left all their belongings inside. I think this is because they were desperate, but, also, because they hoped to return. There was a yellow house in the cove like this. It was on a severe tilt, listing east, and through the front window you could see the kitchen table and chairs as well as the kettle, untouched for decades, slowly rusting on the stove.
The summer home owners always acknowledged this tragic history in our interviews, but they never made a direct connection between their arrival and the previous owner’s departure. I think this shrugging of responsibility was their fault line. It provided the crack for the villain to crawl through. In each of the stories I’d heard, the villain appeared at the point of sale or just before and introduced an indictment, preventing the hero from purchasing their summer home.
The villain might be the curmudgeonly old man next door with whom the prospective buyers must negotiate a right-of-way, they might be a previous owner who takes up residence in the backyard shed, claiming he didn’t agree to sell this portion of the land, or the villain might be the realtor showing the house, inflating the house price after growing suddenly suspicious of the outsider and their intentions.
In traditional fairy tales, the type that Propp analyzed for his Morphology, we don’t tend to learn the villain’s backstory. They appear fully formed and they have only one role to play. In the coves, though, I wondered, couldn’t the villain be protecting what they loved? Curiously, once the house was successfully purchased, the villain almost always morphed into the role of helper. Every summer home owner had a helper.I think this shrugging of responsibility was their fault line. It provided the crack for the villain to crawl through.
In fairy tales, the helpers facilitate the hero’s journey and this is also what they did for the summer home owners. They kept the summer people’s cars overwinter and picked them up at the airport when they arrived. They watched the houses during the winter months, checked appliances and set mouse traps, left their signatures and the date on forms to be used for insurance purposes. Mostly, Propp’s tale roles and functions had overlaid succinctly with the arrival narratives I’d collected from the summer people, but the villain-helper dichotomy troubled me. I’d understood these roles to be opposites. I was beginning to wonder if they were, in fact, the same thing.
I gained some insight into this on the morning in late June that I interviewed my neighbours Doris and Eugene Skiffington. They lived in a sunshine-yellow house—six windows facing the sea—where Brown’s Lane curved to the left and petered out into a trail through the woods that led to the swimming rock and a large patch of wild blueberries. The Skiffingtons had a small white poodle named Angel that sniffed around my ankles as I sat at the kitchen table. Doris said she wouldn’t smoke while I visited because I was pregnant. Word was out by then, so it no longer mattered much what I wore. I guess, also, it was just obvious that I was expecting.In traditional fairy tales, the type that Propp analyzed for his Morphology, we don’t tend to learn the villain’s backstory. They appear fully formed and they have only one role to play.
Here is something interesting about the local people I interviewed: they never, ever complained about the summer people. They had plenty of reasons to complain. For one, a summer couple had settled at the edge of the woods and they were barring locals from accessing the right-of-way that led to the swimming rock and the berry patch. I got to talking about the right-of-way with Eugene and Doris and they were evasive and took on that vague, hypnotized look I’d seen whenever I mentioned our American landlords, as if they weren’t sure what or whom I was speaking about.
Finally, Doris, searching for something nice to say, told me the couple never stopped people on Ski-Doos from accessing the right-of-way in winter. I nodded and agreed that this was amenable of them, but, inwardly, I was thinking about how the summer home owners weren’t there in winter and so they had no idea that the Ski-Doos zipped across their snowy lawn. Doris would know this, too, of course, but what else could she say? Then, Eugene, who was born in the house next door, whose memory stretched back to the time that his ancestors boated down the coves along with the Browns in search of new land, said something important. He told me, “You can’t be bad friends.”
At first, I thought he’d come up with this term on the spot, but later in our visit he repeated it. He said, “You can’t live here and be bad friends.” I heard this saying a few more times that summer, and I understood it to mean that if you live in a small settlement like this, no matter if you are a summer resident or a local, you must get along with your neighbors because at some point you will need to rely on them. Listening to Eugene, I suddenly understood the villain-helper dichotomy. You could play the role of the villain to an outsider but not to a neighbor. To a neighbor in these isolated coves you could only ever be a helper.
It might seem strange that I was graphing the plot points and character roles of fairy tales onto the stories that long-term tourists told about arriving in the cove, but this felt very natural to me then. It was as if the summer people were intentionally following the functions of the fairy tales I’d studied. And it’s not such a stretch that these two different styles of narratives would align. I’ve always felt the term fairy tale doesn’t quite capture the essence of these stories. Yes, they feature magical characters, but next to none of them are fairies. I prefer the term wonder tale, which is Irish in origin, for its suggestion of awe coupled with narrative. In a way, this is most of our stories. We tell ordinary wonder tales every day.
Excerpted from Ordinary Wonder Tales by Emily Urquhart. Copyright © Emily Urquhart, 2022. Excerpted with permission by Biblioasis. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.