The legless castaway: one of Nova Scotia's most enduring puzzles, speculatively retold.
Fraser Mooney Jr.
178 pages, softcover
THERE ARE MANY REASONS WHY FICTION joys reasonably high esteem in Canada, and one of the most significant of them is that in most areas of even our recent history, we are a country without written documentation--this not just in the aboriginal sphere, but in that of our settling peoples too. Making home, not writing anything down, was the preoccupation of most pioneers, many of whom were illiterate, and so great swaths of the country must depend, as the Saskatoon novelist Guy Vanderhaeghe wrote in the epigraph to his novel The Last Crossing, "on all those local historians who keep the particulars of ourpast alive."
Even in Nova Scotia--the seat, in 1758, of the country's first parliamentary assembly, of good universities and a superior historical tradition--much of the memory of the region is anecdotal, the stories of the place conveyed orally.
One such story, close to the heart of many Nova Scotians, is that of Jerome, a castaway who, in 1863, was found on the striking crescent-shaped beach on the Bay of Fundy side of Sandy Cove. The village, United Empire Loyalist then, sits halfway down the Digby Neck, a 40-kilometre peninsula that extends out from the North Mountain, on the backside of the Annapolis Valley, and separates the cold waters of the Bay of Fundy from those of the Bale Sainte-Marie to the east. Jerome has inspired a gamut of artists of late, including the poet Ken Babstock and the novelist Ami McKay. Now, in Jerome: Solving the Mystery of Nova Scotia's Silent Castaway, he is the subject of the speculation, more than history or biography, of the Yarmouth journalist Fraser Mooney Jr.
The story of Jerome is a bona fide mystery that was kept alive first in newspapers, then in radio fireside tales and now by parents wanting to spook their children on a visit to an otherwise salubrious beach. Not mentioned in Mooney's book is Jerome's Rock, the great boulder rooted in the sand just above high-water level, at Sandy Cove, where families gather. It is here that the sailor, legless and muttering incomprehensibly, was found by Collie, not yet a hermit but then eight years old, who, later in life, was said to put a hex on passing ships and scavenge the goods that subsequently washed up on shore.
Strange things wash up on shore, although rarely as strange as this: a castaway with legs amputated at the knee and speaking unintelligibly, perhaps Italian or Polish, and to some, not at all. (Later, on the Acadian French Shore, he was said to speak to children.) Whether his wounds were raw and bleeding or healed and expertly done, and whether Jerome, who was accommodated first in Sandy Cove and then in a couple of households on the Acadian French Shore, spoke comprehensibly (but in a foreign tongue) only to youngsters or not at all--these are but a couple of the tale's unsettled aspects. Its gruesome nature is at the heart of its appeal, the fact that the sailor never explained his fate only adding to the mystery of the beleaguered man's provenance.
Solving this mystery is the aim of Fraser Mooney's slight, whimsical book, one that was probably only ever destined for the local Canadiana shelves of Nova Scotia's bookstores and airport--and he will do well by them, as should anyone who manages to finish the author's enthusiastic but amateur history. Without footnotes, without accreditation, Jerome is really not much more than an elaboration of oral and newspaper accounts finally collected, with great big gaps filled in by fanciful digressions about tangential bits of history--what it meant to be a part of the French Foreign Legion (as he may have been), who was Alexandre Dumas's The Man in the Iron Mask (as Jerome, too, may have been of noble birth) or a Hapsburg prince (you guessed it), et cetera.
And yet remember the adage that it is our local historians who keep the particulars of our past alive. Since many more ships sailed to and from Nova Scotia a century and a half ago than today, it would not have been absurd for locals to imagine that this man was born in faraway places, a pauper or prince, just as it would not have been impossible for a Nova Scotian to end up in them. So kudos to Mooney, even if what was clearly the author's narrative intent--of catering to our fantasies and then dashing them--is only clumsily realized. Late in the narrative, it is revealed that a "foreigner" working at a lumber camp near Chipman, New Brunswick, suffered a near-calamitous mishap, in 1859, after falling into a frozen river in the depths of winter. Subsequently, he had his legs amputated but was expelled four years later, after the Overseers of the Poor decided that the village could no longer afford to care for the invalid. ]he man was sent downriver to Saint John, where the intent was that he be put on a freighter back to the old country, instead of which he was abandoned in Nova Scotia. Mooney argues that the coincidence of the two stories could only mean that Jerome, rather than having been a Legionnaire or a Hapsburg prince, was the exile known as Gamby--who, having had his legs amputated while in delirium, became, quite understandably, notoriously irate and suspicious of adults (although not children) while he was in the care of the villagers of Sandy Cove and then a couple of Acadian families on the French Shore.
Jerome, reports Mooney, was reduced to something of a circus act, one family charging admission to see the castaway as a means of supplementing the stipend that the provincial government supplied to foster the province's most famous amputee.
By the time readers have reached this point, however, most will have been frustrated by the digressions that come across as ways to fill pages in a book that is already slight, and by the author's repeated ploy of asking "What if?" and then absorbing his ruminations as incontrovertible fact in the knit of the following chapter. Because of these techniques amateurishly applied, it becomes hard to take the work seriously, which is a pity as the story is a seminal Nova Scotian tale.
In 2000, in the village of Meteghan, on the French Shore, a memorial plaque was dedicated to Jerome over a false grave, as it is not known with any real certainty where the castaway--who died on April 15, the same day the Titanic sank (effectively sinking the renown of his story for a while)--is actually buried. No matter, this brush stroke of fiction is in full keeping with the habit of a people whose most famously commemorative story--of Evangeline--is entirely made up. At Sandy Cove, meanwhile, there is talk of making the beach a park, as year by year, and piece by piece, more of the beautiful beach and its quiet history are threatened.
History, in Canada, really is written on the land--Jerome's Rock as much a marker as Mooney's book is. Anyone who advocates the weight of oral historical accounts to the factual record should take note of just how hard it was for Mooney to come up with evidence that is truly incontrovertible. This is why, of course, Canadians often turn to fiction to know their country--and it is something of a pity, really, that despite a couple of plays and a film and several loosely historical accounts in books and radio, no one has yet tried to write the novel of Jerome. Make him the prince of Hapsburg, why not, and give us the parallel narrative life of the New Brunswick logger that he may, or may not, have been. Regale us. Draw us in. Make us remember this unusual story even more.
Noah Richler's This is My Country, What's Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada won the 2007 British Columbia Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. He is currently at work on a book about the Digby Neck, Nova Scotia.
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|Title Annotation:||Jerome: Solving the Mystery of Nova Scotia's Silent Castaway|
|Publication:||Literary Review of Canada|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2009|
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