Annie Proulx: “The Shipping News”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

For Henry and Pam

Annie Proulx (b. 1935) is a master storyteller, and her work ranges widely – both geographically and thematically. Many will know her from her short-story-turned-feature-film, Brokeback Mountain, and associate her with Wyoming and the hard grittiness of the West. But Proulx explores other locales, most notably Newfoundland, in her work – and she looks closely at family dysfunction, love for the seemingly unlovable, and reclamation of the human heart.

At the core of all her work, whether in Wyoming or Newfoundland, is her willingness – indeed her zeal – to look unflinchingly at the human condition. Proulx’s work is not light reading: it calls for a dedicated, thoughtful reader, one willing to join Proulx in that unblinking examination of often unattractive characters.

For my money, Proulx’s 1993 novel, The Shipping News, is her great masterwork. I first encountered the book when I was visiting my uncle Henry Tate and my aunt Pam Tate. At their home in Marshall, California, just across the bay from Point Reyes National Seashore, we talked intimately and honestly about our family’s travails, challenges that would later come to life in my memoir, Power in the Blood. Henry and Pam were loving and open in what they shared, but there was such a history of family pain that it threatened to swallow us up.

Both of them insisted that I needed to read The Shipping News. They wouldn’t tell me why – but insisted I would understand once I read the book. I dove into the novel on the flight back to my home in West Virginia, and I was hooked immediately.

I loved Quoyle, the one-named protagonist. I loved his aunt, Agnis Hamm. And I loved Wavey Prowse, the fellow misfit he discovers walking the roads of Killick-Claw.

I loved the headlines Quoyle writes for The Gammy Bird. And later, when I reread the novel with my husband, I came to appreciate the sailor’s knots that open each chapter. I loved the Newfoundland setting, loved being immersed so thoroughly in a different place.

But mainly I loved the way Quoyle confronts the dark family past of the Quoyles (his family’s surname) – and of course, I knew precisely why Henry and Pam wanted me to read it.

Near the end of the sprawling novel, Quoyle tells his aunt that he has determined he’s going to become a new kind of Quoyle. Inspired by his redemptive quest, I called Henry and said, “Let’s be a new kind of Tate.” We’ve been happily engaged in that journey ever since – and I am so glad to have Henry and Pam as fellow travelers on that journey.

While I highly recommend reading the novel, there’s also a good film adaptation, starring Kevin Spacey as Quoyle, Dame Judi Densch as Agnis, and Julianne Moore as Wavey. Spacey and Moore aren’t as homely as I had envisioned Quoyle and Wavey from the book, aren’t quite the sad-sack misfits Proulx paints – it is Hollywood after all. But the film nevertheless captures the spirit of the novel.

Ready to get started? Of course, you’ll want to buy a copy of The Shipping News, but while you’re waiting for your book to arrive, you can read Chapter 1 (click “Look Inside”). You might also enjoy this photographic tour of Newfoundland, created by The Guardian to accompany Proulx’s great novel.

Join me this week on Pinterest as I pin images and resources related to Annie Proulx. Take a look around at all my boards – or go straight to “My Favorite Books” board for Annie Proulx treats.

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Listen:Listen as Annie Proulx reads a two-minute excerpt from The Shipping News. Go to this BBC link, download the MP3, and scroll to 22:32 to hear Proulx set the scene and then read from the novel.

Image Credit: Annie Proulx in 2009 at the Frankfurt Book Fair (