Each life, though it may not be extraordinary exactly, is unique in its own way. And when we reflect on the lives of our forebears, especially ones who grew up and made a living in rural Newfoundland, we can't help the feeling that these lives were extraordinary insofar as their experiences were different from our own.
Rural Newfoundland, after all, is not how it once was – when its people were more self-sufficient.
A new book from Creative Publishing takes an alternative approach to telling the story of a woman's life. "Emily: Song of a Newfoundland Life," by Denise Batten, is her grandmother's life story. She narrates this story in two ways: through hooked-rug scenes depicting turning points in her grandmother's life; and in short verses that accompany each image. Together, these verses make up a lyrical ballad celebrating Emily Nolan's life.
It's an especially imaginative approach to telling a Newfoundland woman's life story. Making it even more pertinent is the way Emily's life is so emblematic of other women's lives in this province — the way they grew up; toiled from a young age; and married and raised families.
They were co-providers, and the skills and strength they had to use in making a living for themselves and their dependents was nothing short of awe-inspiring. They did it all, and this is no understatement.
Unconsciously, ahead of their time, they were feminists. They were equals of men. Yes, their work was 'traditional' in that they ran the household.
But this work was hard and it had to meet a lot of needs. It required immense resourcefulness and required many skills.
To every degree their work was as vital as those of their husbands — in whose work they often shared, actually.
Author Denise Batten makes certain to work these kinds of details into the story — which begins with the birth of Mary Emily Marrie in 1900 in Mount Carmel. Batten supplies a useful foreword, which supplies necessary background information.
From there, the book relies entirely on the media of verse and pictures. By the end of the story, it seems amazing how well you've gotten to know the subject.
Think you know rug-hooking? Kaaren Batten's creations here, telling Emily's life story and reproduced as photographs, gave me a new respect for the craft.
Batten's creations are striking in their detail and colour, and it's entirely fitting to see a traditional life take shape in front of your eyes through an artistic medium that is, itself, traditional.
Denise Batten's "Emily: Song of a Newfoundland Life," is not an attractive book or a unique book; it is an important work, and a valuable addition to the body of Newfoundland and Labrador books dealing with women's life writing.
Western Star Book Review
assistant manager of Newfoundland and Labrador Public Libraries, West Newfoundland-Labrador division