Down to the sea and the ice

Elizabeth Cran
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One of these books makes the Newfoundland Seal Hunt understandable and even (for periods when there was little other work to be had) necessary.

It’s called The Last of the Ice Hunters (Flanker, $21.95) and is edited by Shannon Ryan, one of the best of Newfoundland historians.

The other much smaller book is called Sea Folk by Jim Wellman. Published by Flanker at $19.95, it consists of 23 profiles, including two women, of people make their living by the sea. One is 81, another 82 and a third “turns 90 in a couple of months,” though he no longer actually goes to sea.

The majority of these man and women come from Nova Scotia or Newfoundland, but one - Alcide Arsenault of Egmont Bay — is from Prince Edward Island.

Between these two books, the reader will get a good picture, not to mention an understanding, of this important Atlantic industry and those who work in it.

While the sealhunt is still going on, although apparently on a lesser scale, The Last of the Ice Hunters speaks of the period in which it was at its zenith — from about the beginning of the First World War in 1914 to its sharp decline in 1949-50.

Although designed as a reference work for other scholars and students – and indeed for all interested in Newfoundland history and culture — it is readable by almost anyone.

A preface and introduction outline the origins and development of the seal hunt from the beginning to the early 20th century.

One of the major changes during that time was the introduction of steamers instead of wooden vessels. Another was the equally gradual replacement of seal oil by sealskins, especially those of young animals.

Most of the rest of the book is taken up by interviews with sealers aged in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. These old men — and a few women — came from all over Newfoundland and Labrador and collectively give a detailed picture of the seal hunt from every point of view.

Some of the interviews are given in full, while others consist of selections under such headings as religion, berths, Neptune (steamer) jammed, and ice-blindness.

Sea Folk consists of biographical sketches, some of which first appeared as columns, while others first appeared in the Navigator. All are accompanied by photographs of their subjects. Less scholarly and detailed than Ice Hunters, it provides a good overview of the fishing industry in various aspects.

All in all, it’s a good smallish book which should have a wide appeal.

Elizabeth Cran is a freelance writer who writes a book review column for The Guardian. To comment or to send her books to review, write her at her new address: 95 Orange St., Apt. 101, Saint John N.B., E2L 1M5, or call her at 506-693-5498.

Organizations: The Guardian

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Egmont Bay Prince Edward Island.Between Saint John

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