Gun Control. Doctor-assisted death. Abortion. Three of the most polarizing issues facing humankind in the 21st century. There are no ‘grey areas’ when it comes to these issues, no fence-sitting; one is either for or against them. It is abortion, however that is the central pervading theme for the characters of Bell Harbour and St. John’s Newfoundland in Nicholas Ruddock’s Night Ambulance (2016, Breakwater Books).
Rowena Savoury, a young teen living in the outport town of Bell’s Harbour is pregnant. She was the victim of non-consensual sex (some may call it rape) with a young man from another village who was temporarily working in town. He is out of the picture, and Rowena wants the pregnancy to go away too. However, this is the 1970’s and abortion is illegal in Newfoundland. Undeterred, and with a maturity greater than her years, she researches abortion in the school library. She makes her informed decision and then proceeds to confide in her mother, who is sympathetic to her plight. She, along with the help of the principal’s wife (also sympathetic) arrange to get her to St. John’s where a former Bell Harbour physician is now resides (she is now practising as a psychiatrist), but has agreed to meet with Rowena, although she knows she could lose her license and be incarcerated for performing the illegal act.Post-abortion, Rowena’s bleeding will not cease due to a family history of Hemophilia, and she lies exsanguinating until her aunt discovers her and the night ambulance arrives. The mean-spirited Uncle upon hearing Rowena murmur the word ‘abortion’ insists on calling the police instead of an ambulance, plainly showing his stance on the issue.
While all this is unfolding, Jack Maher, a young constable with the St. John’s police force and his girlfriend Tryphena are dealing with her pregnancy that has resulted from unprotected sex. Added to this conflict of finding himself a father before he is ready for it is that Jack now finds himself assigned to Rowena’s illegal abortion investigation. Jack is the one character most at odds with the issues in Night Ambulance. Due to his career, he must enforce the law, but as an unwanted pregnancy hits home, he has to come to grips with his personal beliefs too. It seems everyone involved has taken their stand; now he is the man in the middle of this tempest that is his life since this poor outport girl came into his world.
Over at Goodreads, I rated this book a 3 out of 5, meaning I liked it, however I mentioned that there was a certain ‘vagueness’ to the story. Now, I am no critic, but I am an experienced reader, and reading this book was like watching a play through a fog: the characters were indistinct (some are not even given proper names) and the surroundings (the cinematic term is mise en scène, the setting or surroundings of an event or action) I feel was not fully developed. While there are various landmarks visited by the different characters, particularly in and around the city of St. John’s, a certain ‘atmosphere’ seems to be lacking. Too, one could be forgiven for neglecting the fact that this is the 70’s, a time of major social upheaval and the rise of activism for there is no real attention given the times either. Perhaps Newfoundland, due to geography was a little distanced from world events? It would have been more interesting if the storyline carried a little more social weight. (I’m thinking Chris Benjamin’s Drive-by Saviours here). The characters, while not always fully fleshed out, are good-natured and elicit empathy from the reader (Rowena’s Uncle notwithstanding).
At any rate, the story of Night Ambulance is a solid one and a worthwhile read.