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On the bookshelf

Catherine Snow by Nellie P. Strowbridge is published by Flanker Press and available at the Butterfly Book Boutique in Port aux Basques.

Although this novel is billed as being based on the true story of the last woman hanged in Newfoundland, little of the drama bears any resemblance to the actual life of the main character, Catherine Snow, except her eventual marriage to John Snow, bearing his numerous children, and her eventual conviction as accessory to his murder.

In fact, this drama would better be viewed as quite an accurate description of life in war-torn and famine devastated Ireland in the first decades of the 19th century. In this, as well as subsequent portrayal of life in the early days of small settlements around the Avalon in Newfoundland, the author should be commended for her extensive research.

The trial of the book’s protagonist, as well as her delayed gruesome end because of pregnancy, are well documented in the provincial archives and in various newspaper accounts of the event, and should be viewed through the prism of the prejudices of that period. What will be of more interest to historians will be the author’s depiction of the treatment of women during these decades. At best they can be considered nothing more than chattel or indentured servants with little, if any, hope of ever being freed from such servitude. In fact, even marriage did not end the woman’s role as a servant and a vessel for the husband’s desire to have his name carried on to the next generation.

One could argue that this attitude still lives far too often even in today’s modern society, as proved by the ever increasing number of spousal homicide reported in the news recently. However, in the 1920’s and 30’s, a woman wishing to reach Newfoundland was entirely at the mercy of the ship’s master and/or crew, without any recourse. For even should a gallant fellow passenger come to her defence, he could well find himself “lost at sea” by being tossed overboard mid-Atlantic with no fear of retribution for the ship’s master. Adding to this system of quasi-slavery, the female would then be “sold” to any man with enough coin once she landed on the new shore. It would then take years, if not decades, for her to attain some basic level of independence.

Gerald Roy is a former Federal Human Rights mediator and educator. Hailing originally from Sherbrooke, Québec, he has retired to Port aux Basques to be near his family. His voracious book reading appetite trends towards westerns, spy novels, thrillers and mysteries.

The level of research by Strowbridge is to be applauded and will no doubt prove of interest to history buffs, I cannot say as much for a lot of the interactions used by the author in crafting the dramatic narrative. The endless visitations between women, gossips and innuendos used to fill their days, serve only to take away from what should have been a truly remarkable glimpse into the early life of rural Newfoundland, the hardship endured by the early settlers fighting smallpox, particularly during the lack of medical facilities, lives destroyed by fires that had to be fought by fire brigades armed with buckets, and countless other woes.

Aside from this minor shortcoming, the book is well written, does reflect life during the period, and gives and credible account of the end of Catherine Snow.

I give this book a 4-Star rating.

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