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Downhill Chance
Donna Morrissey
Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2002.
CDN$24.00, 448pages, ISBN 0-14-303360-3.

Joelle d’Entremont
Université de Rouen

Downhill Chance is Donna Morrissey’s second novel, following her award-winning first novel, Kit’s Law, which was published in 1999. Having met Donna Morrissey a few years ago and after attending a reading of Downhill Chance this summer in Nova Scotia, Canada, I was anxious to read the novel of this up and coming Canadian author. Overall, Downhill Chance exceeded my expectations and caught my attention from start to finish, even more so than Kit’s Law. Donna Morrissey, a native “Newfoundlander”, now living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, is part of a growing interest in anything “Newfoundland”, Canada’s eastern-most province. After the huge success of Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, made into a major motion picture starring Kevin Spacey, Judi Dench and Julianne Moore, and with Bernice Morgan’s Random Passage made into a TV movie (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), Donna Morrissey’s novels add a valuable voice to this wave of Newfoundland’s rich cultural and storytelling legacy.

Morrissey’s Newfoundland narrative is as authentic as you can get. In an interview with January Magazine (, Morrissey comments on The Shipping News, also based in Newfoundland, as she states, “I didn’t like the way [Annie Proulx] parodied the Newfoundlander”. It is not uncommon for people of Newfoundland to be portrayed as stereotypical drunken fishermen, uneducated and isolated from the entire world in the small outports. In Downhill Chance, Donna Morrissey writes from a place she knows best, her home province, its people, culture, history, language, landscape and complex struggles.

Downhill Chance is structured into a Prologue, Book One: Clair, Book Two: Hannah, and an Epilogue. The Prologue begins with an introduction to the Newfoundland outport setting, a harsh, rugged area in northern Newfoundland dotted with small fishing villages along the coast, pre-World War Two. The tough, maritime coastline immediately becomes, in a sense, a major character of the novel in itself, and one to be feared and admired simultaneously.

Ho-lee!! breathed Luke, lunging after him and coming up short, staring at the bank gouged out by the storm and littered with driftwood and countless clumps of glistening seaweed. Too, the tide was still in, and the grey, choppy water, muddied by the earth sucked from along the shoreline, seethed dangerously close to what was left of the bank. And no doubt the bulging offshore swells posed as much a threat to any poor mortal caught afloat its surface as did the wind-whipped whitecaps from the night before, […] Today, a thick fog blotted out the horizons, and the bank sky rendered colourless what was visible in the dome surrounding them. (10)

The Prologue introduces three boys to the reader: Frankie, Luke, and Gid, a newcomer who washed up Rocky Head one night with his Irish family. The community takes care of these strangers until family secrets come to the front and the reader is left with a sense that bad things will ensue. “No good comes from a night like this, mark my words, mark my words.” (31)

Book One: Clair is the story of Clair Gale, her younger sister Missy, and her parents, Sare and Job. It is notably the touching and emotional story of Job, who volunteered to join the war efforts; at the time, Newfoundland was not yet in the Canadian Confederation and men volunteered to go overseas. Clair watches as her mother falls apart during the years of Job’s absence and she must act as a surrogate mother to Missy. Frankie, the boy from the Prologue is reintroduced at this point in the novel. Job returns to the Newfoundland outport, injured both physically and emotionally (what we would now name post-traumatic stress disorder). As Job says, “War ain’t a place for a thinking man.” (139) The description of a war vet trying to deal with his demons and the ripple effects on the family is very moving. Morrissey is able to develop characters with tremendous gentleness and caring, many of which, like Job, are “scarred” psychologically, have deep secrets, or are seen as outcasts by the community. We then see an unravelling of these complex characters as the novel progresses and secrets are revealed from the past and present. Morrissey is greatly skilled at observation and description. This is how she describes Clair seeing her father for the first time upon his return from the war:

And that dear gentle face that once smiled the tenderest of smiles was now taunt in a gaunt jaw. But it was his eyes that revealed the most, for when she finally looked, wanting the milky brown of her father’s eyes, she saw instead, two frozen muddied shells. (133)

Tragedy strikes the family and Clair and Missy are separated as Clair begins teaching children in another outport community nearby but only accessible by boat. Luke, the second boy from the Prologue is now a more mature though troubled young man who spends most of his time by himself. Through the voice of one of Clair’s students, she hears the story of the three boys from the Prologue, which has now become the community’s secret.

Book Two: Hannah is the story of Hannah, Luke and Clair’s daughter. It is in this second part of the novel that the unravelling of family and community secrets takes place, as Morrissey weaves a rich tapestry of families, friends, the dead and living, past traumas and current hurts. The inter-generational storylines are skilfully interlaced. A stranger enters the scene, an old war vet who knew Job and holds dark secrets and missing links to the "chain" which affects the present relationships of Clair, Luke, Missy and Hannah. Gid, the last of the three boys of the Prologue re-enters the story at the end of the novel, completing the circle.

A large part of this novel’s authenticity, if not charm, is the language the characters speak. Although I grew up in Nova Scotia, on the east coast of Canada, I often had to re-read the dialogue to fully understand what was being said and pick up the subtle nuances. I had no idea what some of the words meant and they obviously were not to be found in any dictionary! Here are a few examples: “good say, Crow, b’ye, good say”, “strife-breeder”, “they’re skinning the pudding over the stagehead agin-ye won’t be standing gabbing when they falls off and drowns”, “blackguarding”, “hangashore”, “tossing a squall into his boat” and “bough-whiffen”. Surely these are interesting challenges for German or Japanese translators. The richness of the language is further enhanced by Morrissey’s use of Newfoundland humour, brutally honest, harsh, at times sarcastic, but always effective.

‘Ooouurrr faatherr, wwhhhooo aarrrttt iinnn hheavven’, he whispered, so slow, so beautifully slow that each syllable was registered and words that she hadn’t known were in there became isolated from their stream and took on meaning—or changed their meaning, like ‘lead-us-not-into-temptation’ and not ‘leadusnot’ ad she’s always prayed. And all this time she had wondered why ‘snot’ was in the Lord’s Prayer. (38)

At some point the local men at a community dance are arguing with some of the women:

‘Frig, the women sees the world through a needle-hole, they do’. ‘I’d rather be looking through one than trying to squeeze me fat arse through on-like them that stuffs their guts on the backs of the working man’ goaded Alma. (100)

Downhill Chance offers preoccupations, emotions, and human dramas which make it highly accessible to all, despite its sometimes difficult language. Downhill Chance also has strong undertones of mysticism, mystery and spirituality. For example, Prude’s (Luke’s mother) continual presence throughout the novel with her tea leaves readings and gift of predicting future events, Missy’s foretelling dreams, or simply a person’s storytelling one evening:

Taking a deep breathe Sare launched into how the outporters believed it was the flesh of their dead that fertilized them berries, and their growth was a reminder to all hands left living that just as the roots of berry bushes nourishes the life above it, so, too, are people the walking roots of their own souls, and how it’ll be their deeds tat will judge the ripeness of their own resurrection someday. (44-45)

Downhill Chance is a story of human frailty, vulnerability, redemption, forgiveness and the powerful ties of family and community, universal themes that reach far beyond the small, isolated outports in Northern Newfoundland.

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