Newfoundland’s master storyteller Gary Collins returns with a novel written in his cogent style that blends together fiction and history into a uniquely readable book that anyone would enjoy. That may sound like a marketing line you might read on the back of one of Mr. Collin’s books, but I have read and/or reviewed several of his books and I’ve always found them to be enjoyable, compelling reads. The Crackie is the quintessential Newfoundland book, covering some major events in Newfoundland’s history before Confederation of the British Colony with Canada in 1949.
The Crackie is the story of a young man looking to escape his little island on the northeast coast of Newfoundland. Jake (AKA the Crackie) is a stuttering, red-headed boy whom his father verbally and physically abuses. There is no love at home. However, there is The Maid, a girl that understands and loves him for who he is. Jake is the only character referred to by his Christian name; all others (like the Maid, the Culler, the Swiler, etc) are called by titles that describe them or their function in the story. These descriptors go far in telling us about the person and their role in Jake’s life, further than any given name would. This only adds to the ‘storytelling’ feel of the novel. Mr. Collins writes as if he is telling the reader a story in the old-time tradition. Storytellers spin tales; writers weave words and phrases into intricate and varied designs.
To make some much-needed money, Jake joins the annual seal hunt as a ‘dog’ to a gunner, which means he carries the gun and ammo and reloads the rifle for the gunner to shoot seals that come up in areas of open water to breathe. The Crackie knows he can shoot accurately and is given a chance to show his marksmanship. This gets him some respect amongst the other men. He witnesses the tragedy of the SS Newfoundland (see Mr. Collin’s 2014 book Left to Die), and disgusted with how much he actually earns for all his hard work, he enlists in the army to go “over there” to fight in places he’s never even heard of for a King he’s never seen. Away from his island for the first time, he encounters sights he’s never seen. On the way to St. John’s he sees a train for the first time:
Jake had never seen a train before. He had never seen the wondrous clamouring, swaying, terrifying length of it come roaring down through the wooded hills out of the darkness, sparks flying from a hundred screaming wheels, torrents of black smoke mixed with flankers pouring out of her iron chimney, her many windows all alight, her screaming whistle shattering the quiet evening. Jake loved it.
Jake eventually gets sent to the Dardanelles where he meets up with the Catholic, a well-read friend that was on the seal hunt with him. The Catholic is like a father-figure for Jake, in that he imparts knowledge and thinking ability to Jake, something that no one else has ever done for him. Together, they discuss many things, such as the war they have both volunteered to fight in:
“We were told we must fight to keep them from our shores, from disrupting our freedom, our way of life,” Jake said.
[The Catholic:] “And now here we are on their shores, threatening a way of life different from ours. The people of this land were living in castles of stone and fought with iron and bronze while our native peoples slept in huts of bark and hunted with stone and wood. The battle being fought here is as old as the land itself and will never end.”
Jake is a sniper, and the Catholic a runner of messages. Jake gets injured attempting to save the Catholic from a sniper’s bullet and is eventually rehabilitated and sent home. Jake wonders if The Maid is still waiting for him. However, there are other unforeseen events about to unfold as well, testing Jake’s mettle in a very different way.
While there have been several books published (fiction and non-fiction) on the events drawn on by Mr. Collins in The Crackie, particularly that of Newfoundland’s profound contribution to the Allied forces in WWI in France and the Dardanelles (see Kevin Major’s Found Far and Wide), the story of Jake as the unloved, stuttering red-headed boy that becomes a man is a compelling one. One gets the feeling that Gary Collins could write a phone book and make it sound appealing. He certainly has an incomparable way with words, especially when describing places; he has a way of making you feel you are in the very places he is describing, whether on the ice sealing, rowing an open boat on the sea, or the filth of the trenches in WWI. If you’ve never read a Gary Collins book, The Crackie would make an excellent introduction to his storytelling and writing ability. Another five-star gem from Mr. Collins! As such, I’ve added it to the 2019 long list for a “Very Best!” Book Award for Fiction.
The Crackie by Gary Collins
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