Harold Walters’ Review of Kirby Walsh’s A Trip to Labrador

It’s Lobster Season as I write this and locally the crustaceans are selling for in excess of $6 a pound from tailgates, so I’ve heard. In the summer of 1905 when Edward Caldwell Moore—a Presbyterian minister and professor at Harvard University—travelled to Labrador at the invitation of Doctor Wilfred Grenfell, “Lobsters were a cent a piece, and the natives never ate them.”

Times and things have changed.

For parts of his trip Moore sailed on the legendary Strathcona, the hospital ship given to Grenfell by Lord Strathcona in the glory days when Grenfell was “the idol of the Labrador shore.” Moore was not impressed. In a letter to his wife he wrote of shipboard squalor, squalor compounded by the foxes Grenfell kept on board: “She is filthy.  She can hardly be less so long as she is a menagerie.”

Images of the Strathcona were sprinkled through my boyhood. My grandfather, Uncle Steve[!], often spoke of the days when he was cabin boy on the Strathcona—I s’pose he wasn’t telling me lies. He told of Grenfell habitually jumping overboard for a morning swim, then eating his favorite breakfast—burnt toast. As a matter of fact, lying in his deathbed confused by senility, grandfather believed Grenfell had deeded him the Strathcona and she was moored in the cove, badly in need of careening.

Moore was also awed by the savagery of Labrador huskies. In a letter to his son he recounted the details of an attack he’d heard about from Grenfell: “One big dog jumped on a little boy, and the moment he was down on the ground all the dogs were on him biting and tearing.”

Descendants of those dogs were the reason I never had a puppy when I was a boy. Can you believe that?

When my father was a lad, he spent a summer in St. Anthony because his mother was “down on the Labrador” as a cook. A pack of ferocious dogs chased young George the length of the community, snapping at the slacks of his arse all the way. B’ys Young George could run! He reached home safely but…

…but because he was scared for a lifetime, he never, not ever, allowed a dog in our house. No puppy for Harold.

A Trip to Labrador is not exciting, in fact, at times I found Moore’s letters and journal entries rather dreary. It’s the bits and pieces, the scraps of information and observances that make the book worthwhile.

For instance, I dare to quote this next bit at the risk of offending certain delicate sensibilities—but it made me chuckle. It did. I couldn’t help it.

 Because of the threat of tuberculosis, Grenfell had published a circular forbidding spitting, “a universal vice,” wrote Moore—and here’s the dandy part—“even the women spit like lobsters.”

Yes, that image slayed me and I don’t even know if lobsters truly spit. Do they?

Another one: At prayer services Grenfell read from, and commented on, scripture and, if it happened to suit him, prayed for “the conversion of the Jews.” The conversion of the Jews! Indeedy, times have changed.

Here’s a morsel to chuck into the seal hunt soup. Moore bought a white seal skin for his young daughter, a skin from a baby seal killed in the sealing season. Now the line to rile-up the anti-seal hunt crowd: “This little animal can hardly have been more than a foot and a half long. I know Dorothea will be delighted to have it for the floor of her little room.”

More than anything else, Moore was appalled by the dirt among the poverty stricken livyers and fishermen. He recorded this story in his journals: “A man was brought to Grenfell who suggested that he be washed. Then as the story goes, after a quarter of an hour they came to a shirt. And sometime later as they continued, got down to another shirt.”

Want more anecdotes from Moore’s summer voyage? Want to read of fog, fog, fog and only four fine days? Want to read of a total eclipse of the sun in a fog-shrouded land? Grab a copy of A Trip to Labrador and knock yourself out.

Thank you for reading.