Robin McGrath (1949-)

Robin McGrath, a prolific writer who has been published in China, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Canada and the United States, did not think when young she would be able to write. Initially, she had difficulty in school. In particular, she thinks she might have been dyslexic. Her parents were Anita and Dr. Jim McGrath, a fiction writer of the 1930’s and also a Health and Finance Minister under Joey Smallwood’s administration. Born in St. John’s two days prior to Confederation, she is part of the “confederation baby” generation, whose mothers often took castor oil to speed the delivery process so that their children would be born as Newfoundlanders rather than Canadians.

McGrath lived in London, Ontario for fifteen years, where she completed a PhD in Canadian Literature, raised three children, and worked as a writer for the London Free Press. She progressed to teach at the University of Alberta as an Adjunct Professor with the Department of English, wrote for the Edmonton Journal and became an internationally known Eskimologist while working throughout the Canadian arctic and subarctic. She did not approach creative writing until her 40s. Returning to St. John’s in 1993, she is an active member of the St. John’s Jewish community, having converted to Judaism from a Roman Catholic background, and is on the executive of the Hebrew Congregation of Newfoundland and Labrador. A member of the Board of Directors for the Writers’ Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador, and a participant on the advisory board of the Newfoundland Quarterly, McGrath writes full time from her 200-year-old restored home in Beachy Cove. Her husband, John Joy, is a specialist in admiralty law and aboriginal justice.

McGrath has published numerous pieces of fiction. Her first publication, a collection of short fiction, Trouble and Desire (1996), centers on explorations of love, family relationships and migration to and from the island as the main character moves from childhood to middle age travelling from a resettled island to Mexico. In 1998, her first volume of poetry, Escaped Domestics, was published. Broken into four sections on the Newfoundland landscape and folktales, Inuit cultures, Judaism and personal relationships, the collection is built more on stories and snapshots of life, making it, as McGrath believes, folk poetry. She followed with Covenant of Salt (2005), a biting and ironic collection that is steeped in oral tradition and modern poetics.

She also created many innovative pieces of fiction, such as Rejoice in the City: Postcard Poems, an interactive chapbook of seven poems, printed on thick yellow postcards. Each poem is specific to the geography of St. John’s and the collection includes suggestion slips where readers can record their responses to the poems and the resulting city sites that they encourage readers to visit. The “poems are intended to encourage exploration” and each postcard poem can be mailed to the City of St. John’s, where the responses are archived. In 2002, McGrath wrote the play, Mountain of Shoes, depicting the history of a young female Holocaust survivor that moves to Bell Island; she has also written a history of Portugal Cove and Torbay. By 2004, Nursery Rhymes a collection of 300 well known and contemporary rhymes, charms, and riddles was released. All of the verses have personal names, communities or phrases that make them unique to the province, while others merge wording from England, Ireland, Scotland or France.

By 2002, she released her first novel, Donovan’s Station, a historical piece set in the mid-1800s about a woman, Keziah Donovan, who though mute and paralyzed, offers a history into her Newfoundland life moving from abject poverty to success. Tracing Keziah’s life from the 1830s to the creation of Donovan’s Hotel in 1914, the book portrays the culture of those who earned their living from the fishery and the historical events spanning 200 years. The book is rooted in tradition from snaring rabbits, cutting hay, digging peat and milking cows all the while weaving Keziah’s life to the very end, where she finds true love in her elder years.

McGrath has also published two pieces of young adult fiction to date: Hoist Your Sails and Run (1999) and Gone to the Ice (2002). The former, set in Portugal Cove, includes local myths and legends centring on the lives of Emma Trim and Acquin White and their growing relationship, complete with the unique point of view and stories provided by Acquin’s grandfather, Mogue White. Three generations of a family’s history are linked, from Tommy Picco’s encounter with a giant squid in 1873, to Tommy’s descendant, Mogue White’s, participation in Memorial University’s famous Squid Squad in the 1960s and Mogue’s grandson, Acquin’s, science fair project on the mysterious giant squid of the 1990s. The novel explores multiple teenage issues from sex, suicide, to alcohol abuse while providing abundant samples and reflections of outport life such as beachcombing, jigging squid, casting caplin and iceberg watching. Her other young adult novel, Gone to the Ice, explores the issues that face researchers and native people, tracking a teenage girl, Obie, and her father, Dr. Spicer, in their travels in the north.

Besides publishing numerous academic articles and history in Newfoundland Judaism, McGrath’s distinctions include the Halbert Chair for Canadian Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (1996-1997), the Henry Fuerstenberg Award (1999) for her collection of poems Escaped Domestics, being shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (2003) for Donovan’s Station, the Geldert Medal (2004) for her article, “Simon Solomon: Newfoundland’s First Postmaster,” and the first annual Heritage and History Award (2004) for Donovan’s Station.

Viet Nain

Change a silk gown for a survival suit,
Head down the hard shore by sea with
Three stowaways from the coastal boat,
A client on conditional discharge,
And a small, seasick dog:
Nain, Davis, Hopedale.

High winds outside the harbour,
Waves threaten to drown all,
While in Sheshatshiu
Two more Innu take their own lives.
And even the cold Atlantic
Can’t douse the flames
Of children in Davis Inlet
Immolating themselves with gasoline.

The war is here now,
One step closer to home.

Article by Aaron Peach. © 2006, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site

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