‘Ghost of the Southern Cross’
The disappearance of the Southern Cross and its 174 sealers during the March 1914 voyage to the icefields continues to capture the imagination of historians and novelists alike.
The most recent offering, Nellie P. Strowbridge’s “Ghost of the Southern Cross,” is a work of creative non-fiction inspired by true events.
“I stayed true to the way of life,” Nellie explains in an email to me.
Born in Hibb’s Cove, Port de Grave, she now lives in Pasadena. She is one of the province’s most prolific and engaging authors.
Nellie describes her latest book as “a story of love, loss and survival, with courage and hope.”
While nobody survived the sinking of the vessel, there were, she notes, “survivors of the loss of the sealers ... There was no closure for the relatives and sweethearts of men lost at sea, only distractions about a mystery they knew would never be solved.”
The tale she weaves revolves around two childhood friends, Elizabeth and Maggie, who are inextricably joined by their love for one man lost on the Southern Cross, Jamie, a brother to one and a groom-to-be of the other.
As Nellie puts it, their “lives took different paths, one, perhaps, no more tragic than the other.”
Elizabeth finds solace in the new faith that Pentecostal missioners bring to Hibb’s Cove, while Maggie spends time sorrowing with Jamie’s increasingly eccentric father.
Nellie takes as her starting point children on a beach, where most outport children, myself included, spent much time.
“The children branch out to make their own lives,” she writes, “only to be brought together by this tragedy.”
She alternates between the innocence and collective grieving of children.
“Losses and secrets will define their lives and their connections. Love stories shattered, bereaved lovers coping with finding optimism. Secrets made – some kept, some told.”
Women dream about life’s finer things. A young woman hides a dark secret. A painting becomes a connection to another vessel, the ill-fated Titanic.
Nellie has her own connection with the story, focusing on her grandmother, Elizabeth, and the pseudonymous Maggie, Elizabeth’s brother’s sweetheart.
“Who can measure the pain of losing a sweetheart to the pain of losing one’s children, though both women lost children in different ways?” Nellie asks rhetorically.
She wrote her book as the result of several triggers, including images of people she had been told about, including her greatuncle James Maley, and her greatgrandmother Mary Jane Bussey, among others.
She recalls her grandfather Jacob “raising his hands in church believing that if Jesus could calm the seas of Galilee, he could keep him safe in the storms of his life.”
Dr. Pritchitt operated on children’s tonsils on a table in her Uncle George’s house.
“I found this hard to believe,” she confesses, “but it was true.”
As a former Pentecostal pastor of 30 years’ standing, I am especially interested in her depiction of Alice Garrigus and her Bethesda Mission in St. John’s.
Under Book Club Discussion questions, Nellie asks, “How do you see the Pentecostal faith as having evolved since it began in Newfoundland under Alice Belle Garrigus at a time when attire, jewelry, and hairstyle played more of a role in its moral values?” Ouch!
Then there’s the phenomenon of glossolalia, tongues speaking, so prominent in pioneer Pentecostal circles.
As Nellie says, “The gift of unknown tongues frees one from the constraints of language, allowing the heart to speak to God who understands all sound.”
Nellie is amazed at “how much you can learn from the past by taking notes over the years, accumulation of knowledge about people.”
Writing comes as second nature to her.
She loved writing the book. Of course, she hopes readers will enjoy it, as well.
“I like to bring some philosophical truths to my writings,” she states. “When I write, I want readers to think of something they never thought of before, or to validate something they did think about but couldn’t find the words to express it.”
Perhaps readers will relate to both the tragedies and triumphs her characters experienced.
She also hopes to inspire oth- ers with “a thought they can use to better handle their situation or that of someone they know.”
Her story may even “bring optimism and faith where there is a faltering in hope.”
She believes all of us are “part of the tree of life; we, the branches, die and are renewed in our children and their children. What we leave behind is our testament to the world. We leave memories of us and hope for their future.”
“Ghost of the Southern Cross” is published by Flanker Press of St. John’s.