A new book from Flanker Press, “Landslide: The Jack Hickey Story,” describes the natural disaster that struck Harbour Breton in the early morning hours of Aug. 1, 1973. Author Bruce Stagg tells the story of the Hickey family’s shattering loss of four small children in heartbreaking detail.
While not without its flaws, Stagg’s book is an affecting examination of small town Newfoundland life, and of an ordinary family suffering extreme loss under extraordinary circumstances. Jack Hickey and his wife Olive were like any other young couple when they married in 1963, full of dreams for the future and eager to start a family. By 1973 they had six children.
But dreams can go wrong. Eager to have construction of the family home well under way by their wedding, and with lots of undeveloped real estate, Jack thought purchasing a suitable parcel of land would be easy. But it became a matter of accepting what he could get. Halfway through construction of the new family home the Hickeys received one of those “Oh, by the way, didn’t you know …?” comments about the land they were building on; by then there was no going back.
Apparently it rained for forty days and forty nights; but one thing is for certain. It was an unusually wet summer. Townspeople were desperate to see the sun after more straight days of rain and fog than anyone could seem to remember.
At around three in the morning of Aug. 1, 1973, people awoke to a force of nature so extreme and abrupt it could have been the end of the world.
It wiped out a number of homes, but seemed to concentrate its fury on the Hickey house. The family’s four middle children, Pauline, 8; Eddie, 7; Timothy, 6; and Julie, 4 were lost.
The impact of Stagg’s book is significant as well. Dealing with the deaths of four small children how can it not be? And it demonstrates extensive research and effective use of primary material.
But there are pitfalls. There is occasional bad grammar (“Gertie felt badly for Jack”); and hackneyed phraseology like “the Grim Reaper” metaphor to describe the passing of family members like Jack’s parents and Olive’s father.
Worst is Stagg’s persistent use of passive voice as in “… Jack was to discover that it was a problem not to be ignored” and “His first job in the spring was to get the clapboard siding installed and painted” and “Every window in the house was crystallized with a thick, white frost forming odd patterns.” These are off-putting to the point of frustration. Over-inclusion of the verbs to be and get contribute to awkward syntax that distances the reader emotionally from events and scenes. It works against immediacy and vividness – points of style that matter a great deal in a book about personal and public tragedy.
But Stagg’s apparent fondness and empathy for his subject redeems things somewhat.
For instance, a metaphor like “unsettled seas” to describe hardship in Jack Hickey’s life is meaningful — in light of his personal fondness for anything to do with ships and the ocean.
People of our province are familiar with disaster and hardship. Bruce Stagg’s heart-rending account of a landslide’s deadly destruction reminds us starkly of how the land in our province – not just the sea – holds its share of dangers against people who choose to settle and make a living here.
Darrell Squires is assistant manager of Newfoundland and Labrador Public Libraries, West Newfoundland-Labrador division. You can contact him at: email@example.com or by phone at 634-7333. His column appears every other week.
NEW AT THE LIBRARY IN CORNER BROOK
“Guilty Wives” by James Patterson (suspense fiction)
“The Snow Child” by Eowyn Ivey (adapted fairytale fiction)
“Leaving” by Karen Kingsbury (Christian fiction)
“The Headmaster’s Wager” by Vincent Lam (historical fiction)
“The Decision” by Penny Vincenzi (domestic fiction)
“Pure” by Julianna Baggott (young adult fiction)
“The Walking Dead: book 1: a continuing story of survival horror” by Robert Kirkman et. al (young adult graphic novel)
“Canadian Pie” by Will Ferguson (adult non-fiction)
“Girl Walks into a Bar…” by Rachel Dratch (adult non-fiction)
“Planet Tad” by Tim Carvell (children’s fiction)
Source: Jessica Prince, City Librarian, Corner Brook Public Library