The Wonderful Dogfish Racket
Although for the first 13 years of my life on this planet I slept close enough to the ocean to have waves lull me to sleep, I didn’t see a dogfish until I was nigh onto 25. And that was a dead one. He and hundreds of his perished kin, as I discovered, lay strewn across the landwash of Point Verde beach.
“Oh, look at the poor little sharks,” I probably said to young Missus who also hadn’t ever seen a dogfish. But Missus couldn’t have been expected to have seen one. She was reared up in Rabbit Town.
While I was familiar with dead dogfish, I still hadn’t clapped eyes a living one when I started reading “The Wonderful Dogfish Racket” [Pennywell Books]. No surprise, I learned there was much I didn’t know about them.
For instance, I didn’t know their “wellem was wicked.” Wellem? That word stalled me in stanza seven. After a restart I turned straightaway to the Glossary where, for an hour, I browsed through words both familiar and foreign.
I didn’t know bultow, but I knew croustry. I’m sure you’ll find this hard to believe, but I knew crousty because people have applied the word to me. Truly. I didn’t know marness, even though more than once I’ve been marnessed.
I knew paddy keefe but hadn’t before I came to dwell among the Irish in Placentia Bay.
I also knew tansies because I’d seen hundreds of them when I was a rubber-booted bay boy. But, you know what? I could never jig one of those wiggly little buggers. Pause for research. Admittedly, I knew what a tansy was, but I didn’t know what it really was. Shame on me, I don’t have a copy of the Dictionary of Newfoundland English, so I darted over to Mr. Google’s house and searched through his bookshelves until I found his copy. There I learned that a tansy is actually a rock gunnel.
Rock gunnel? Something else I didn’t know. But you learn something every day, eh b’ys?
OK, enough about what a rich learning experience “The Wonderful Dogfish Racket” was for this erstwhile bay boy.
This book tells the story of the time the dogfish came to Cross-Handed Cove in shoals so thick that they resembled a biblical plague. The fisher folks whose livelihoods were on the verge of being destroyed feared the infestation was punishment for their wicked ways: “Folks looked to the heavens and blamed it on sin.”
Despite a government bounty placed on dogfish, dead fish piled up everywhere: “on bawns, on boulders; the jib-spots, the lanes.” There they spoiled: “they reeked of the gurry and leaked rotten oil.”
And must have stunk out the whole cove, as badly as, or worse than, the carcasses of a pod of gull-pecked pothead whales that once drove ashore and rotted on the beach of my bay boy abode back in the days when I had nary a notion about dogfish physiology.
Conditions in Cross-Handed Cove became so awful that “The charmer appeared in her brackety shawl.” Charmer? Not a beautiful woman, all charming and nice, but an old crone better known for putting away warts than sweet-talking the populace.
Let’s allow the dogfish to go maggoty and hold the page on Tom Dawe’s poetry for a spell and have a look at the pictures that are the story’s backdrop.
C. Anne MacLeod is the illustrator. Sometimes her illustrations are haunting; sometimes they are downright macabre.
An aside: Mr. Pennywell, I wish you had numbered the pages in this book. It would have saved me some counting.
The illustration on pages 11— 12, by my count, is haunting. Two figures wearing their long-johns or, perhaps, grave clothes, wave farewell to tar-black shadow boats sailing away on waters filled with tar-black shadow dorsal fins, like a flotilla embarking across the River Styx.
My favourite illustration is on page 15: A goat- eyed skeleton drooling a single drop of blood cavorts in the foreground, apparently scaring the bejabbers out of a screaming family of four. The bawls of fright stretch their mouths like that buddy in Edvard Munch’s iconic painting: The Scream.
If presented effectively, baby-sitters could use The Wonderful Dogfish Racket to scare the daylights out of their obnoxious charges. You know I’m joking, eh b’ys? The Wonderful Dogfish Racket is a jimdandy book but if I were reading it to my granddaughters I wouldn’t be able to resist disgusting them a wee bit by emphasising the sink of maggots and gurry and rotting dogfish “peasing through loose window panes.” I simply wouldn’t be able. Thank you for reading.