Book Review: Strangers and Others: Newfoundland Essays

Through criticism, Dragland attempts to answer life’s questions. It’s as if he is reading his way through the very crux of the human condition – suffering, displacement, and unease.

Newfoundland is made of solitude and poetry. As an orphaned island in the North Atlantic, its complications are as rich and diverse as its literary history. Stan Dragland’s Strangers and Others: Newfoundland Essays acts as a compass, and charts the heart of the island’s lyrical terrain.

As a transplanted mainlander, Dragland continues to choose Newfoundland as home. His collection of essays navigates an initial ignorance mixed with enchantment towards the island, and how it captured his spirit. Originally from the prairies, Dragland is a mainstay in St. John’s, and even tells readers his address: 114 Bond Street.

Dragland’s critical vantage point is somewhat observational, yet astute. He writes, “I’m a sucker for eloquent prose and sometimes tempted to give more credence than I otherwise would to beautifully expressed thoughts I don’t agree with. A thing of beauty is not always a joy, not forever. But here was the kernel of Newfoundland I was just beginning to know.”

While he cautions readers of the harshness, danger, and reality of the place, it is the pull of foreignness, humour, and resilience of the people that lured him. Newfoundland’s culture, and rhetoric seduced. “In Newfoundland I felt an impetus for asking the old questions with a new enthusiasm. One of the questions was and is, who am I in this new unsettled context, and now that I propose to write about it, Marjorie, how can I get it right?”

Through criticism, Dragland attempts to answer life’s questions. It’s as if he is reading his way through the very crux of the human condition – suffering, displacement, and unease. As someone who has recently moved back to Newfoundland after swearing off ever living here again, Strangers and Others is an elixir, and a homecoming.

Language is a living beast, an ever-evolving entity. Newfoundland’s dialects and accents are as far-flung as its geography. The Dictionary of Newfoundland English is thicker than the Bible. Though, the kaleidoscope of colourful languages and dialect is dissipating.

Poet Mary Dalton laments the loss of accent and dialect of her youth, making comparison to First Nations writers whose language was stripped in order to assimilate. Dragland is quick to point out Newfoundland culture isn’t being taught in schools, and its rich folk culture is often scrutinized. The need for historians, storytellers, artists, and poets is integral.

Playwright and poet Agnes Walsh writes about people, relationships, and place – from Placentia, Newfoundland to Portugal. Dragland notes Walsh’s ongoing love affair with words, but struggles with her own relationship to her work. He writes of Walsh’s poems, “there is this recurrent sense of wrestling with words, sometimes losing to the weight and inertia of accumulated meaning, sometimes managing to twist meanings her own way. But always there is this conviction, whether the poet can work them or not, that words are alive.”

Newfoundland poetry and literature is rooted in language. Much like the uniqueness of the place, its books are filled with strangeness, and a sense of being othered while at home. Dragland contextualizes how Newfoundland is both inside and inside of the Canadian literary canon, yet entirely of its own volition.

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