"The Nymph and the Lamp", a novel by Thomas H. Raddall (Little, Brown and Company, 1950)

In 2005, Erik Larson wrote an excellent book about Marconi and the invention of transatlantic radio called Thunderstruck.  The secret of the wireless communication involved very tall receiving antennae on shore and electrical generating power at the source to create huge sparks of electro-magnetic energy.  They used the language of Morse Code.  The radio signal, which travels in a direct line, bounced off the earth’s atmosphere creating a curve towards its destination.  It’s far more complex than this; good reason to read Larson’s book.

Marconi stations were built on the most remote extremities of land abutting the ocean.  One of these is Sable Island off the Southeast Coast of Nova Scotia.  From its birth, Sable Island was not used to transmit across the ocean, but was a relay point for ships heading to Halifax, Montreal and Boston. There grew on the island a small population of hearty souls divided into three groups: the civilians who supported the lighthouses at either end, the lifesavers who ranged across the island ready to respond to shipwrecks.  These were established long before the Marconi station. The third group, signalmen, were employed by the wireless company, at the station built on the highest point of the island.  The former were permanent settlers, the later were usually one year and done.

The Nymph and the Lamp, set in the early 1920’s, tells the story of a signalman, Matthew Carney, who loved the island, called Marina in the novel, and stayed far beyond one year.  Finally, he took a three-month shore leave to find his family in Nova Scotia, with whom he had lost contact.  During this unfruitful search, he finds Isabel Jardine, an independent spinster, secretary to the ED at the wireless company.   Sparks fly between these two non-reactive subjects, culminating with Isabel accompanying Matthew back to the island for permanent settlement after knowing him only from his files, his reputation and no more than 35 hours together over three days. 

The story of her acclimatization to the station residents, all men, and the island’s citizens, both men and women, is a fascinating story.  It is hard not to like all the characters in this book, and to feel their anguish as the tale unrolls. 

Within a year, Isabel returns to Nova Scotia and finds a safe harbor in the region of her birth among the apple orchards of the north island.  She joins the roller coaster of boom and bust following The Great War, nurtured by an employer who is smart enough to give her responsibility and authority.  Such a man was a rare find in 1920’s provincial Canada, and a rare character coming from a male author, writing in 1950.

Raddell does a fine job of tying up the stories.  The book is beautifully written, full of glorious similes and descriptions of the nature of sea and shore.  Highly recommended for those who love an old-fashioned novel complete with love, betrayal, sadness, joy and a fascinating setting.  The book is out of print.  You may find it at a library or a used book store.  I purchased through a seller on Amazon.

“The Lost Salt Gift of Blood” by Alistair MacLeod (Ontario Review Press, 1988)

Book #3 in my research reading for a trip to Nova Scotia.  These short stories are existential in their presentations of life, choice, decisions, death.  You won’t come away laughing or even smiling, but you will feel that you have experienced MacLeod’s vision of the people of Cape Breton.  Some stories (there are only seven.) have one protagonist, others cover generations.  The atmosphere is always starkly real.  

Nova Scotia had many waves of settlement. The Micmac were the natives when the Europeans took up residence.  First the French, the famous Acadians who were expelled mid-18th century by the British after six wars for domination.  The British encouraged emigration from the New England colonies and 2000 families came in the early 1760’s, both farmers and fishermen. At the same time, Gaelic Highland farmers in Scotland were forced off their crofts (rented land) by the Highland and Lowland Clearance: landowners forcing the change from farming to sheep grazing.  Also, many Highlanders were Catholic and the prospect of more religious freedom in Canada appealed. Many of these Highland farmers settled in New Scotland, Nova Scotia, around Cape Breton at the far eastern end.  It is the descendants of these people, some still speaking Gaelic, who are the protagonists in MacLeod’s stories.  They settled in Cape Breton to be away from others and continue their Highland traditions.

MacLeod’s stories arise from the pressure of more contemporary society on the traditions and the psyche of these settlers.  They are mostly farmers and fishermen; few characters are from the city.  Animals are laborers, not pets.  The older generation cling to their independence despite infirmity.  In the remote areas, there are no phones, no electricity, only bad roads and tight fishing boats.  

In a slightly different vein, the last story, The Closing Down of Summer, is about miners who go “off-island” for the big bucks and the big risks.  Again, it’s about the pressure of change, knowing that you and your mates will likely be replaced by equipment.  And the miner reflects a point of view I’ve not seen expressed in relation to work underground.

“I have always wished that my children could see me at my work…And that they might see how articulate we are in the accomplishment of what we do.  That they might appreciate the perfection of our drilling and the calculation of our angles and the measuring of our powder, and that they might understand that what we know through eye and ear and touch is of a finer quality than any information garnered by the most sophisticated of mining engineers with all their elaborate equipment.”

I am not a short story lover, but I felt fulfilled by MacLeod’s stories because they allow for character development.  All situated in Cape Breton, you begin to understand the nature of the environment, the people and plots from story to story.

Highly recommended, but not light reading.