Book ReMarks -
I thoroughly enjoyed Allan Square even though I was raised a bay-boy. Missus, born and reared in the warrens of Rabbit Town will enjoy it even more when I'm done with this ReMark. Mammy, who once worked in a St. John's biscuit factory, said when she saw the book lodged on our coffee table, "I'd like to read that little book."
Initially, Allan Square reminded me of Angela's Ashes, a book whose genuineness I was skeptical about - No one could be that bad off! - Shirley Murphy's memoir, however, is a notch or two above Frank McCourt's account of his childhood. Her voice is more forthright and humourous than I remember McCourt's being.
If I've done my sum correctly, Shirley was 11 years old when Confederation pupped and Newfoundland became Canada's tenth province; when Joey Smallwood, as if from his own wallet, doled out the Baby Bonus. Lacking self-esteem, and longing to be worthy in her mother's eyes, Shirley thought she would finally be of some value to her family. She believed her Baby Bonus cheque would mellow mother's manner: "The baby bonus would encourage my mother to wallop me in the head with a dry dishcloth instead of a wet one; less chance of brain damage."
I bet you know people who have an unhealthy, macabre attraction to wakes and funerals. Shirley Murphy's attraction to wakes was a matter of health - kinda. Always half-starved, she attended wakes to glut herself on the food available: "I was soon stuffed and nearing the peaceful state of oblivion the corpse was enjoying."
The mother/daughter relationship between Shirley and her mother was an odd one. Not until after her marriage did Shirley and her combative mother share any sort of friendly - loving? -relationship. Dorothy usually turned her daughter's kisses aside and hissed, "Judas." At times she literally banged Shirley's head against the wall. Yet, incongruously she enjoyed Shirley's unflagging humour: "Don't you dare make me laugh when I'm dying," she said. "If you do, I'll haunt you!"
Now, b'ys, imagine that.
I've mentioned above that Missus will enjoy Allan Square. She'll be able to relate to Shirley in some cases; for instance, to the fashion of friends and relatives visiting from out around the bay and sleeping on chairs and sofa cushions pushed together to make beds on those occasions.
In the "Afterword" of Allan Square Shirley Murphy describes the only dream she ever had of her father who died when she was seven. In the dream she saw herself as a little girl accepting a key from her father and heard him say, "You come back whenever you want to."
In this memoir, Shirley has gone back to the old flat on Allan Square; she has gone back to exorcise her demons, so to speak. She has returned to the dark horror of the coal pound - a place in which she sometimes had been imprisoned as a form of punishment - to unlock the door and free her childhood self.
It is so gut-wrenching sometimes to look back on our lives and see the little girls and boys we used to be, especially if those children were being victimized in any way. If Shirley's acerbic and witty adult voice is any indication, she has fought and vanquished her dragons and scraped the scales from their leathery carcasses. P'raps more of us should do the same.
Okay, that's enough being right serious.
Be you a bayman or a townie, a denizen of Allan Square, Rabbit Town or any other environ of St. John's, you'll enjoy this book. The canvas is rough but the colour is detailed and vivid.
Mostly I've enjoyed Shirley Murphy's humour, a characteristic that helped her survive. In that light I end with the following teaser.
An Allan Square neighbour, old Mr. Cousins is dying. His wife, Fan, asks Shirley to sit with her by the deathbed in which Mr. Cousins soon dies - happy.
Promise me, those of you who have already read Allan Square that you won't reveal the role Fan's "navy blue underpants" play in Mr. Cousins' happy demise.
For reading and keeping your promise, I thank you.