Susan Chalker Browne. The Land of A Thousand Whales.

Margaret Mackey
University of Alberta

St. John’s: Tuckamore Books, 2006, ISBN: 1-897174-08-X

1 A LANDSCAPE CHANGES when it is peopled with stories, even when those stories are fictional. When we read a narrative, we move into the condition of not knowing how it will all work out. We see through the eyes of the story’s characters, feel their anticipations and disappointments, look at their world as part of the conditions that make their story possible. Reading a good historical novel changes the way we look at a landscape; we see the possibilities that other characters saw. And creating that landscape in our mind’s eye, as the result of reading the abstract black marks of words on the page, means that we see it as an imaginary as well as a real world. It is a surprisingly powerful experience.

2 The Labrador coast is not short of its own stories but there are still too few that tell of the incoming of the White fishermen. The Land of a Thousand Whales recounts the story of the Spanish whale fishery of 1580 from the perspective of 12-year-old Sebastian. Lured by what he perceives as the romance of "the land of a thousand whales" and profoundly uninterested in becoming a boatbuilder like his father, Sebastian stows away on a whaling ship headed for Labrador.

3 This short book tells of Sebastian’s adventures over a single summer. After he is discovered on the ship, he is put to work by the whalers. In the early stages of the summer he makes an enemy of an older boy, Ferdinand, and helps to kill a marauding polar bear. As summer wears on, Sebastian is promoted to the crucial position of whale spotter because of his keen eyesight. Running back to the station with news of a family of whales, he observes a fire in one of the rendering cauldrons. His ability to keep a steady head in this emergency leads to his being offered the chance to go to sea in a chalupa (a long, thin, canoe-like boat used to allow the harpoonists to converge on their prey) to see the whales up close. He gains his wish but also unexpectedly witnesses in close-up the death of one of the whalers, an event that changes his perspective on the whole venture.

4 It is a short story (only 82 pages of this little book are devoted to Sebastian’s story) and simply told. Nevertheless, Susan Chalker Browne manages to raise a number of complex questions. She is at her best in dealing with the landscape and seascape and their animal inhabitants. Sebastian relishes the solitude, the closeness to the whales, and the rhythms of daily life. He is excited to spot a family of whales but struck with the moral ambiguity of finding them only to slaughter them. When the death of the whaler (who was sitting beside Sebastian when he was swept into the ocean) is factored into consideration, the overall ethical and social picture becomes even more complicated. The simple language of this book is no impediment to conveying the complexity of Sebastian’s reactions. This component of the story is one of the major strengths of the book, and Browne makes no attempt to tie up every moral loose end as the book comes to a close — also a strength.

5 In such a short story, however, it is perhaps inevitable that some elements of the plot will be treated more fleetingly. The story of Sebastian’s short-lived feud with Ferdinand is not particularly well developed or convincing and I found it hard to care about their developing relationship.

6 This book tells more than Sebastian’s story, although that narrative represents the major focus of the book. At the beginning, the author offers us a glimpse of the romance of historical research. The whale bones piled up in Red Bay, Labrador suggested decades of hunting, but it took the additional clue of the orange rocks that littered the landscape to establish the story of the Spanish presence. When a historian, following directions written in 1576, arrived in Red Bay in the 1970s to see if it could possibly be the historical site of Butus, she identified the "orange rocks" as Basque roof tiles. At the end of the book, an author’s note provides information about the archaeologists who uncovered a wrecked whaling ship and located a cemetery mentioned in the story. She supplies useful details about which elements of the story are historically based and which are invented, and also reports on contemporary legislation concerning whaling.

7 The effect of sandwiching the fictional story between these two accounts of historical research enriches the book and provides its young readers with some idea of how we find out about the past. The story itself equips its readers with a new lens on that past. For a simple and relatively undemanding story, it achieves effects of some complexity.