Life in the small Newfoundland village of St. Lawrence was not easy in the early 1930’s. The town was still recovering from the tsunami that hit there in 1929. The disaster killed 28 people and left hundreds more homeless or destitute. It was the most destructive earthquake-related event in Newfoundland and Labrador’s history and, making matters worse, occurred at the beginning of a worldwide depression. It was into this environment that Donald Poynter and his new bride Urla Crammond entered upon leaving the U.S. to set up a small fluorspar (Calcium Fluoride) mine, basically from scratch with very little capital. Dancing in a Jar (2016, Breakwater Books) is Adele Poynter’s first novel. Unfortunately, Ms. Poynter passed away shortly after Dancing in a Jar was published. Her obituary is here.
A Book of Letters
This book, aside from a prologue and an epilogue is composed entirely of letters, which I thought was an innovative approach to creative writing. The real letters (from her father’s collection) serve as a basis for the developing love story of the newlyweds against the backdrop of hard times and a harsh, foreign, but hauntingly beautiful environment. When asked about how she was able to incorporate the ‘real’ letters (there are only 15 of them) into the narrative, Ms. Poynter responded:
I read them [the letters] over and over to give me a general sense. I wish I had many, many more. I took excerpts from the letters and inserted them not necessarily in order but wherever they fit into my story. I used them to give me a sense of the language and characters. I never really used a letter in its entirety, but some passages were so poignant that I had to put them in verbatim and I certainly could not have dreamt them up.
The format works. I found myself anticipating getting the next letter just as Donald or Urla would have from the small mail boat that brought the outside world to their small community. Fortunately, all I had to do was turn pages, not wait weeks or months as they did! The letters vary back and from Donald to his parents and to the owner of the mine, Urla to her sisters and parents. Apparently, neither the senior Poynters nor the Crammonds were keen to have their children move so far away to such a formidable place as the poor British Colony of Newfoundland, and this is reflected in their correspondence. Especially so when Urla tells them she is expecting. She reluctantly accedes to their wishes and returns home to suburban New York to have the baby, but she soon finds she misses her simple, joyous life back in St. Lawrence: “I’m so grateful I learned to be a wife in St. Lawrence where I somehow learned without complicating it. Sometimes having too many options can be a burden. I can’t wait to get back..”
Urla comes from an upper-middle class background living in the NYC bedroom community of Nutley, New Jersey. One would think that living in Newfoundland would result in her being lonely and depressed, but instead Urla rises to the occasion, determined to be a good wife and homemaker for Donald, who is struggling to get the mine up and running. She soon befriends (and is befriended by) some of the local girls and women. They teach her to knit, garden, cook local dishes and Urla even organizes a reading circle for some of the older girls who had to leave school in order to help out at home. This helps her to come to love her new home, make lifelong friends and adapt to the local customs.
Ms. Poynter has woven a wonderful novel out of a few old cherished letters, and that is what makes this book so enchanting to read. The reader is compelled to use their imagination, picturing scenes so well described through the eyes of Urla, and one even finds themselves cheering Donald along as he fights to get the mine operational and generate some much-needed revenue for the poor community and its hard workers. We connect with Urla as she comes to see that the locals, though poor, are happy:
“In truth, I am ashamed of my apprehensions when we first arrived in St. Lawrence. How could my view of isolation be so distorted? How could I not have known that you can be poor and rich at the same time?”
I truly enjoyed Dancing in a Jar, and I highly recommend it.