‘The Wards’ by Terry Doyle and ‘Birth Road’ by Michelle Wamboldt

Contemporary fiction set in Newfoundland and historical fiction set in Nova Scotia. What more could you want?

The Wards by Terry Doyle (Breakwater Books)

This is my type of book. An ordinary family, characters you get to know so well that you’re never surprised by their actions, even when their actions surprise you.

The Wards are a Newfoundland family living in St. John’s. Two parents, a boy and a girl, both young adults. Multiple narrators throughout the book means varying perspectives on the family and its members. As Gemma Marr says in her review of the book, “This approach creates a rounded experience that underscores the complexity of even the most mundane moments…”

When the story begins, Gussey–age 23–is still living at home. His father Al is disgusted by this, but his mother is secretly satisfied by it. Perhaps because Al is always away working, and she doesn’t want to be home alone. Or maybe she’s afraid she won’t know who she is when she has no one left to mother.

Dana is studying at the university and rooming with a couple of friends. She’s smart and responsible, making up a little for Gussey’s indifference about his future.

Gussey is a walking contradiction. He wants to be treated like an adult, but still lives at home and lets his mother do everything for him. But he isn’t as one-sided as he first appears. When his buddy Mark is left by his girlfriend, Gussey moves in with him and doesn’t think twice about helping him out. Because Mark doesn’t have much family of his own, he tags along with Gussey to Ward family events, which provides readers an outsider’s perspective on the family.

Al is a grumpy man, always handing out harsh words, especially to his son. Gloria just goes with it, maybe thinking it’s normal behaviour for fathers… although she admits to feeling a mixture of “anticipation and dread” whenever Al comes home off his rotation. Gloria’s whole life seems to be taking care of others… Who is she outside the context of her family?

Al Ward was angry. Angry at the uncomfortable bed, angry at the lack of a TV for distration, angry at that male nurse with the ponytail who was too f*cking chummy, angry that he was missing work, angry they’d taken his room in camp from him, angry he had to wear pajamas all goddamn day, angry he was being jailed in that friggin hospital, angry Gloria was taking so long – what was she at? She was supposed to just get him a coffee.

When a family tragedy occurs, what is the fallout and how does each character react?

I don’t know why they all thinks being dead inside is a good thing.

I’m going to miss the Wards – I wonder if we will see them again someday.

Further Reading:

My thoughts on Terry Doyle’s short story collection, Dig (also published by Breakwater Books)

The Miramichi Reader: “Doyle crafts an engaging story of love and loss in Newfoundland, and The Wards offers readers dark and humourous insight into a group of people just trying to stay afloat.”

Saltwire: “Consistently, the characters are revealed and constructed through actions and attitudes, never explicitly described. We don’t really know what they “look” like, but we can see them.

Birth Road by Michelle Wamboldt (Nimbus Publishing)

Birth Road is popular here and has a long wait list at the library. This is no surprise – Michelle Wamboldt grew up in this town as did her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.

At the beginning of the book there is an illustrated map of Truro from the 1930s and 40s. On the map, you can see the route taken–the birth road–that Helen would have walked to have her baby in the prologue of the novel. Many of the buildings on the map are still standing, including Stanfield’s and the Maternity Home. The setting of the book is fun for anyone at all familiar with Truro, but it’s a great story no matter the setting.

Helen and her younger sister were born to a bitter mother and a gentle–but drunk–father who is away much of the time. Her mother, by far, seems to prefer her sister, leaving Helen always striving for her mother’s approval.

Helen’s greatest friend is Madge, but there’s something not quite right about Madge’s family, although Helen won’t know what that is for many years. When Helen is in Boston for a few years, she discovers a clue suggesting that her own family may also have secrets.

Helen is forced to drop out of school, a place she loves, to help bring in more money, halting her plans to become a teacher. So begins her many years working at Stanfield’s, sewing underwear. Which leads to Edgar and Gerald and the war and grown-up Madge, and big discoveries, and hard decisions. In other words, Helen lives her life – a life like everyone else, but not like everyone else. One that could have gone so many different ways, but went the way it did. And now to make the best of it.

Time passed and stood still, all at once.

… I felt the innocence Edgar once said he loved about me being chipped away, one little piece at a time.

Heartfelt, authentic, and a page-turner. Chris Benjamin, in his blurb of the book, says, “Michelle Wamboldt has a mystery writer’s uncanny knack for revealing just enough information, at just the right time….The result is a compelling page turner.”

Truronians will love this accompanying map!

Further Reading:

Interview with Michelle Wamboldt at The Miramichi Reader in which she talks about the inspiration for her book, her writing journey, and a tiny hint about her next novel.

Review at The Miramichi Reader: “Birth Road by Michelle Wamboldt tells the story of Helen, a young woman from Truro, whose life of heartbreak and challenge will pierce your soul but her pluck and perseverance will warm your heart.

Saltwire:“Michelle Wamboldt is a natural-born storyteller, a true writer,” [Donna]Morrissey said. “Birth Road is a story of growth and discovery, beautifully written, expertly told. I felt as though I were in the hands of a seasoned writer.”

13 thoughts on “‘The Wards’ by Terry Doyle and ‘Birth Road’ by Michelle Wamboldt

  1. Debbie Rodgers @Exurbanis says:

    I didn’t know that Birth Road was set in Truro – I thought it was somewhere on the South shore or in the Valley. No wonder the wait list is so long!

    Was your copy of The Wards from the library (maybe Halifax?) When I saw that it was one of four that Newfoundland Reads has chosen for its shortlist for 2023, I suggested it as a ‘buy’ at my local branch of CEHPL here in Tatamagouche. It’s on order now but I don’t expect to be able to read it until the new year.

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, I had to request The Wards, but since then I think a copy got lost. Maybe it was the only one. It’s just as well that you suggested it for purchase, because there should be more than one!

      The author of Birth Road lives on the South Shore now, but the book is set in Truro!

  2. wadholloway says:

    “Al is a grumpy man, always handing out harsh words, especially to his son. Gloria just goes with it, maybe thinking it’s normal behaviour for fathers ..”. I certainly grew up thinking it was usual for fathers to grump and mothers to conciliate. And much as I might wish otherwise, it was my own parenting style too. And now my daughter’s (with children 1-19 years) who has to be her own conciliator.

    • Naomi says:

      It’s unfortunate, because it could be so much better (grumpy dad’s can’t really be happy people, can they?), but at least if children think it’s normal maybe it’s not harming them too much… Besides the fact that the pattern might continue through to the next generation. As a grumpy dad, were you unhappy? Or did you just think you were ‘supposed’ to grump?

      • wadholloway says:

        Normal maybe, though I don’t think they thought it was desirable. To be honest, being autocratic, which is what the grumpiness is about, is something men get away with, still, as far as I can see.
        Happy/unhappy? I’m not sure. But I can see now that me being less ‘grumpy’ would certainly have increased my family’s happiness, and Milly’s in particular.

      • Naomi says:

        Thanks for sharing, Bill! Yes, “autocratic” is probably a better word, but really it comes across as grumpy. This is a good conversation for Literary Wives!

    • Naomi says:

      Historical fiction, family secrets, illustrated map… What’s not to love? 🙂
      I have no idea how hard/easy it would be for you to find it through your library, though…

    • Naomi says:

      The Figgs is a good comparison! Even if only because they’re both about a grown family with lots of things going on and how they work their way through it. I loved The Figgs, too!

  3. annelogan17 says:

    Both books sound lovely, and I can see why they would appeal to you. Speaking of the birth road – my mother in law always likes the tell the story of how HER mother had to walk to the hospital to give birth to all four of her kids. It’s hard to imagine, but I wonder if it might have taken your mind off the contractions, and helped speed along the delivery a bit too?

    • Naomi says:

      That’s what I was thinking… that it could be helpful. On the other hand, some of us might not have made it in time!!

      In the book, Helen is wearing a heavy coat over her belly so no one can tell she’s hugely pregnant, and it’s July – I don’t know how she managed that. She was tough!

      • annelogan17 says:

        Oh man, for sure those ladies were tough, they had to be!

        Yes my labours were slow, so I didn’t consider making it in time, but that’s a very good point! LOL

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