Between the Jigs and the Reels

Rachel is a recovering violinist, having quit the instrument years ago. But when she hears school caretaker Phonse Flynn playing the fiddle, Rachel is enchanted. So much so, that she asks him to teach her how to play it his way.  Here’s an excerpt from their first lesson:

Phonse picked up his fiddle and cradled it, the wood gleaming like a brooch against his work shirt. Although I had practised, I was self-conscious now; my arms felt rigid.

“Like this, luh,” said Phonse. “See how it’s resting on my shoulder? It’s got to be loose, it’s got to be like a part of you.”

I slipped the fiddle into a softer pose. Phonse played a few bars very slowly, his movements exaggerated. Then he pointed his bow at me. “Have at ‘er, girl.”

I drew the bow slowly across the strings and tried to copy what he’d done. We repeated this a few times then he put down his fiddle, sat with his hands on his knees and listened, his head down. I was glad I couldn’t see his face.

“Good,” he said, when I stopped. “You got the talent all right, but you’re stiff as a plank, maid. Loosen up.”

Even as he spoke, I could feel my shoulders hunch forward, my right arm tight. I forced them back and began again. Once I’d mastered a piece, we would repeat the process. Phonse would play, then I would mimic. Line after line. His playing sounded fluid, soft, and floaty. Mine sounded staccato, laboured, and stodgy.

Now, enjoy this video featuring the master fiddler himself, Emile Benoit. And you know what, he looks a bit like Phonse.



I Love Rock ‘n Roll

Music is a big part of Up She Rises, especially as Rachel learns to play the fiddle and discovers the traditional music of Newfoundland. But Rachel’s students are much more interested in the burgeoning world of music videos, courtesy of Much Music. For them it’s all about the pop and rock songs of the mid 1980’s. During Rachel’s first evaluation with vice principal, Judy, she struggles with class participation on the topic of similes and metaphors. Luckily, Eddie Van Halen jumps to the rescue:

They were not participating. It was down to me. But what other example could I give? ‘Stunned as me arse,’ as I’d heard someone describe Calvin? That didn’t seem like the best example to impress Judy. Sweat was trickling down my back. When I walked over to open a window, Harry Wadden exhaled loudly. Annoyed, I picked on him.

 “Harry, can you think of a metaphor or a simile?” 

“No, Miss.” He avoided my gaze; his thumb working the edge of a sticker plastered on his binder – Eddie Van Halen, all goofy grin and big hair.

You’ve got to ro – o – oll with the punches, to get to what’s real…

With that, Professor Brennan saved me ; a snippet from one of his lectures popped into my head: ‘Grab their attention – bring the subject to life by making it relevant for them. ’

Might as well jump…

I went to the blackboard and picked up a piece of chalk, its slender form like a life line, grounding me. “Let’s try something different,” I said. “I want each of you to give me the name of a singer or a group you like.”

A few minutes later the blackboard looked like a record store poster: Wham, Duran Duran, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Michael Jackson and yes, Van Halen.

“Now,” I said, “think about the lyrics in their songs. Any metaphors or similes?”


The examples began to flow and I wrote them on the blackboard.

“You Must be my Lucky Star” – metaphor.

“You Spin Me Right Round Baby, Like A Record” – simile.

Then Billy raised his hand. “Madonna, Miss. Like A Virgin.”

Judy’s head whipped up from her notebook. I fought hard to maintain a neutral look. “Simile,” I said crisply, ignoring the snickers.

What’s your favourite song from the 1980s?


Stars in His Eyes & Dreams In His Head

On Christmas Eve, all alone in Newfoundland, Rachel O’Brien opens two gifts, one of which is a cassette tape of traditional music:

I stuck it in my boom box and lay back down as the lyrics of an unfamiliar song filled the room: 

“Sonny don’t go away, I am here all alone

Your Daddy’s a sailor, who never comes home

And the nights get so long and the silence goes on

And I’m feeling so tired I’m not all that strong

Sonny’s dreams can’t be real, they’re just stories he’s read

They’re just stars in his eyes, they’re just dreams in his head

And he’s hungry inside for the wide world outside

And I know I can’t hold him, though I’ve tried and I’ve tried…”

Sonny could be one of my students in Twig. But his lamenting mother didn’t sound like the ones I knew. Lucille, so proud of Linda teaching in Labrador, Cynthia’s mother, expecting her daughter to attend university and even Mrs Piercey who wanted more for Calvin than hauling wood. I thought of poor Georgie Corrigan, stuck in Twig but hungry for the wide world outside. They were all hungry for something, whether in Twig, in town, or even up on the mainland. I wanted to help them, but how?

Sonny’s Dream gets Rachel thinking. It has that effect on a lot of people. Whenever I hear it, I can almost picture the young Sonny, peering down the highway, stars in his eyes and dreams in his head. The song was written by Ron Hynes, a  Newfoundland singer-songwriter who died too young last November. The first time I ever saw him was when he performed with The Wonderful Grand Band at Memorial University  back in the early 1980s. The last time I saw him was at Union Station in Toronto about four years ago. I wasn’t sure who it was at first – leather jacket, black hat and guitar case – someone with presence, for sure. It was only when I was safely on board that I figured out who it was. I wanted to go find Ron Hynes on the train and tell him how I used to live in Newfoundland and had seen him perform. How I was trying to write a novel about Newfoundland and that it would feature traditional music. But I didn’t. I had my two young children with me, I felt a bit foolish, the list of excuses goes on. I really wish I’d spoken to him that day.



Any regrets?

We’ll Rant & We’ll Roar Like True Newfoundlanders

I said I would post about Ron Hynes this week, but recent events have bumped that post for now. If you’ve been reading my posts, it’s pretty clear that I love Newfoundland: a place of natural beauty with a strong sense of pride in its people and heritage. But many Newfoundlanders are ranting and roaring these days about the recent budget. Two things in particular stand out for me.

One, the province will become the first in Canada to charge HST on books. Two, just over half of  Newfoundland’s libraries are set to close over the next two years. Boo and hiss.  It makes no sense whatsoever for the province with the lowest literacy rate to bludgeon books like this.

Ranting and roaring about these proposals can make us feel better, but here’s two more things you can do:

  1. Sign the Atlantic Publishers Marketing Association‘s petition against the tax on books here.
  2. Support your local library, no matter where you live. Use it or lose it peeps.

And, to cheer us all up here’s Great Big Sea with We’ll Rant & We’ll Roar: