As you can see from the cover picture above, the sign on top of the house reads “GOD DAM SMALLWOOD.” Incorrect spelling notwithstanding, this sign that Felix Ryan’s father has erected on top of their house in the small outport of Curlew, Newfoundland is a bold statement. Premier Joey Smallwood is revered as a near-deity amongst a large percentage of the Newfoundland population back in the 1960s when the story begins.
For the benefit of those not familiar with the Smallwood era, Mr. Moore presents us with an Introduction:
This is the story of a young man finding his way through life. It is set in Newfoundland at the end of the Smallwood era, when we looked about for our identity as a people. We were now Canadians. What did that mean? It is a story about a father and a son and their constant love through conflicts and troubled times.
Tom’s father, Walter is a mainlander from Alberta. He sees Smallwood as transforming Newfoundland into a province like all the others, and in the process destroying a unique culture, particularly by the resettlement of many of the destitute outports (not Curlew, though). Naturally, all the Smallwood supporters see the blatant sign as an extended middle finger. Felix’ stepmother Shirley knows what the repercussions will be: a loss of jobs for Walter, no teaching contracts for her and ridicule for Felix at school. Of course, she’s right, but Walter is steadfast. How long will the sign stay up?
Felix tells us later in the book while in conversation with Shirley:
“Yes, it bothers me when we have to do without things because of your father’s sign.”
The door opened, and Father came in from tending his sign with a bucket and cloth.
“Eggs?” I asked.
“No, tar this time,” he said, and reached under the sink for the bottle of kerosene.
“Are you going back at it, now?” I asked.
So Father and I went out into the yard. I held the ladder as he climbed up to the sign and began cleaning it. Two years older now, and starting to grow, I held the ladder firmly, knowing that no one else would help him. Sun, wind, snow, rain, as well as Liberals, had all assailed his sign. Cleaning it had become a daily ritual, like brushing his teeth.
“She wants it down, doesn’t she,” he said.
“Soon, I think, soon,” he said.
In the two years the sign had been up, his jaw had been broken twice in community altercations. I still have memories of him at the table, drinking soup through a straw, with his jaw wired up.
I held the ladder as he wiped off the black globs with a cloth and some kerosene. He looked smaller than I remembered him as he dabbed and pushed at the black tar defacing his sign. But his jaw was firmly set, as if the wires were still in place.
The above passage serves to demonstrate the subtle humour Mr. Moore effectively utilizes in his storytelling. This creates an enjoyable, lighter-than-normal read, which is refreshing for someone like myself who reads so many works of fiction dealing with the weighty issues of the day. I particularly like his varied characters, especially Felix’ school friends like Monk, who knows all and sees all, and is intuitive on top of it all. A bit of an Oracle, Monk is the one Felix will go to for information and advice. Then there are his university roommates like Gib Martin and John Malacat, the gambler and dope dealer.
Of course, there is a love interest and her name is Ellen Monteau. After his first encounter with her, Feliz seeks out Monk for more information.
“Who is Ellen Monteau?”
“Well-developed blonde, room II-A. Straight-A student. Lives with her mother in Petley. My kind of girl!” he concluded with a smile. His big head was already lowering back to his book.
“Sure is pretty,” I said.
“Somewhat of a checkered past, though.”
“What do you mean?”
Information was Monk’s currency. With it he bought what little interaction he had with other human beings. “Something about her mother.”
Monk looked at me, then around the room. He pulled his chair closer to mine. “Okay, I’ll tell you. The mother went to St. John’s as a secretary years ago and came home pregnant. That was Ellen. They lived with the grandmother until the old lady died a few years ago. She must have left them the trailer. The mother drinks a lot, and there are men.”
Undeterred, Felix is obsessed with Ellen and she moves in an out of his life as they finish high school, university and beyond.
A timeless, delightful novel for all ages (teens on up), The Sign on My Father’s House is a fine mix of humour combined with the blossoming and evolution of youth including the requisite mature decisions demanded of adulthood.
The Sign on My Father’s House by Tom Moore
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