Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Helen Fogwill Porter's "Below the Bridge"

In the war years of the last century, a young girl growing up on the South Side of St. John's, Newfoundland, said to her mother, "Wouldn't it be nice if someone wrote about the South Side?" The girl was Helen Fogwill Porter, voracious reader and aspiring author. She would become the person who "wrote about the South Side," in the Newfoundland classic Below the Bridge.

The South Side of St. John's, or "below the bridge," was a tightly knit community of families which had its own identity apart from that of the the capital city across the harbour. In the 1950s, that community was razed so the harbour could be extended. In the process, the grave of Shawnadithit, the last known survivor of Newfoundland's indigenous Beothuks, was lost. The South Side became a grave itself, of the homes and culture of the people who had lived there. But unlike Shawnadithit, the longshoremen, midwives, fortune tellers, shopkeepers, "fallen women," sailors, and housewives of the 1930s and '40s who lived on the South Side have a memorial. In Porter's Below the Bridge, you can smell the "tarry ropes," the sweat of the black horses who drew funeral processions, the Jeyes Fluid and the inevitable Sunday roast. Porter has rebuilt the demolished houses of the South Side, and she takes the reader into them, and into the rich and sometimes fantastical lives of their inhabitants.

"When Helen Porter writes of resettlement and the harbor, of war and the Dardanelles, of dream figures and death, of the Salvation Army and yeast cakes, of rowing to Fort Amherst and glowing at Fort Pepperell, her characters do not resemble those in Chatelaine or in People magazine; they are not over-painted models, pigments of the imagination; they are us. And even if their experiences are not the stuff of epics, by dissecting them free from a worldly background she portrays the fabric of a congregation, a community, a culture; the which, to define operatively, is near-genius." (Dr. William Pryse-Phillips)

Listen to an excerpt from Rattling Books' new unabridged audio version of Helen Fogwill Porter's memoir of growing up on the South Side of St. John's in the 1940s and '50s.