This week’s Just Wondering column by Burton K. Janes can be found on
Admission: when I open The Compass each week, the first thing I look for is this column. From February 2011 until December 2012, I looked in The Compass for another column, “Past Imperfect,” a fortnightly effort by Edward Roberts. He has now turned his 49 columns, plus one, into a book, “How Newfoundlanders got the Baby Bonus.”
“Most Newfoundlanders believe we know something about our history,” he says. But, he adds, there’s a problem. “Most scholars have established that Newfoundland’s history, as it was taught to most of us and as it has been portrayed by books of every description, very often amounts to nothing more than a mixture of myths, misunderstandings, and outright misrepresentations … Modern scholars ... have shown convincingly that the traditional view of our past ... is ill-founded.”
Roberts, who has “a lifelong interest in Newfoundland history,” was invited to write a biweekly column about Newfoundland history for the community newspapers published by TC Media throughout the Province.
“There was no great plan or scheme as to what I wrote about,” he admits. “I made a list of possible topics, and added to it as time went by … The choices reflect my interests … The only common theme was Newfoundland and Newfoundlanders.” His column was and, subsequently, his book is, “a series of snapshots about our past.”
“How Newfoundlanders got the Baby Bonus” is divided into five sections: Early Times, Our Regiment, The 1920s and 1930s, The Confederation Years, and Memorable Men and Times.
Readers will have their own preferences. Some may want to know if the Butlers are Newfoundland’s oldest family. Others may ask why the Blue Puttees wore blue. Yet others may wonder why we surrendered self-government in 1933. Confederates, especially, may scratch their heads as to why Confederation actually made it to the referendum ballot. Those interested in the lives and exploits of memorable individuals may ask why Marconi left Newfoundland.
I personally am intrigued by the implications of this question: did the Newfoundlanders face Adolf Hitler across a trench on the Western Front during the First World War? I won’t spoil it for the reader by revealing Roberts’ conclusion. Suffice it to say ask, what would have happened if a sharp-eyed Newfoundland or Labradorian marksman had shot him down?
I have long wondered about Rockwell Kent, the so-called “Brigus spy.” Was he deported from the Conception Bay town for being, in fact, a German spy? Roberts, whose family come from Brigus, tackles this question head-on in two insightful chapters.
A book of columns is prepared at a more leisurely pace than a series of newspaper columns. A suitable illustration accompanies each chapter in Roberts’ book. Therefore, the reader can study, for example, the title page of D.W. Prowse’s “magisterial and iconic” book, “History of Newfoundland.”
There’s a depiction of perhaps the best-known cartoon in Newfoundland’s history, the so-called “Bow Wow Parliament.” The music, to which we sing “The Ode to Newfoundland,” is reproduced, so the musically inclined can actually play the selection. Another illustration is a newspaper account of an epic debate between A.B. Morine and William Coaker on the night of May 27, 1919. The illustrations provide a sense of immediacy, as though the reader is participating in some of the historical events.
Roberts appends to his collection a chapter of suggested readings for those who want to know more about Newfoundland and Labrador history. Those works include general surveys, the political story, studies of specific periods, after self-government, economic history, military and naval history, and biographies and memoirs.
History, Roberts suggests, “is not simply a matter of names and dates … Different men and women looking at the same facts can draw different conclusions … Newfoundland’s history ... is filled with differing interpretations. Many of them are myths. Some lack any basis in fact, and others simply ignore inconvenient truths.” He makes a conscientious and, I believe, successful attempt at steering a judicious course between those “differing interpretations.”
Roberts does the reader a great service by bringing the imponderables of Newfoundland and Labrador history down to the level of the average reader who may have no academic training in the field.
“Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have every right to be proud of their history,” the author concludes. “It is a rich and fascinating story, filled with triumphs and disasters alike. Our history helped to make our province and our people what we are today.”
Roberts still has at least another 49 articles stashed away. My hope is they will soon see the light of publication in a sequel to the present volume.
“How Newfoundlanders got the Bay Bonus: Stories from our Imperfect Past” is published by Flanker Press of St. John’s.
— Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at email@example.com