Winner of Canada Reads – 2005
First published in 1928, Rockbound by Nova Scotian Frank Parker Day was long relegated to the depths of CanLit obscurity, even after it was reissued by the University of Toronto Press in 1973. But, this fantastic novel has been brought back into the canon of classic Canadian literature. Initially, this happened because of its frequent inclusion in Canadian Literature courses at universities – in both survey courses and as a mainstay in Atlantic Canadian Lit classes (and it is typically required reading in the few Island Studies literature courses taught around the world). For the general public, its inclusion and subsequent victory in the 2005 edition of Canada Reads was what brought Rockbound to prominence (Rockbound has the distinction of being the oldest book to win the competition and it currently stands as the only novel from the Maritimes to take the title).
Rockbound is one of the most magical novels I’ve read in many years. I grew up in Nova Scotia and spent a lot of time in the region where this book is set; I had family on the South Shore and my High School’s district included much of the upper half of the shore. Many of the family names in Day’s classic novel reminded me of home – Jung, Kraus, Slaughnwhite, Boutilier, and Born to name a few. Additionally, my father worked his way through school by fishing, and my uncle and father-in-law are both lifelong fishermen. So as I read through this book, I felt a very strong connection to its story and characters.
Rockbound is both a book of its time and a timeless story of the human condition. In the 1920s, fishing in Atlantic Canada was still a very lucrative career and had a certain unspoken romanticism to it. For men especially, hard work and manual labour were valued over all else, especially formal education. Every outport and village had its own unique dialect and set of rules – essentially existing as its own nation in a way. Being a fisherman wasn’t simply an occupation or even a way of life, it was a state of being as natural as breathing. The magic of Frank Parker Day’s novel is how he pulls the reader into this long-forgotten world. His use of dialect would rival Mark Twain and his landscape imagery is equally as good as any of the Confederation Poets from the previous generation.
While the imagery and landscape is essential to Rockbound, this is a character driven novel. Uriah Jung is one of the great not-so-subtle antagonists of early Canadian fiction. The undisputed king of the island of Rockbound, Uriah is the domineering and scheming patriarch of the Jung clan. He has three sons whom he rules with an iron fist and works to the bone, but his world is turned upside-down with the arrival of the novel’s protagonist, his nephew David Jung, claiming a sliver of land he is legally entitled to. Uriah and David are the primary drivers of the drama on Rockbound, but this is an ensemble piece. Uriah’s trio of sons – Martin, Joseph, and Casper, Gershom, the Kraus family, and Mary each lend important elements to life on Rockbound and help make this story what it is.
Rockbound is now part of the public domain in Canada so there are a number of discount ebook copies available, but I strongly recommend dropping the few extra dollars for the UTP publication which includes a fantastic afterword by Gwendolyn Davies of UNB. The afterword provides great historical and regional context and some fascinating biographical background on Frank Parker Day.
This book can be read in so many ways that it begs for deeper critical analysis – the struggle and plight of the working man, island notions of totality and intimacy, familial bonds and social customs, the role of women in a man’s world, and the list goes on. I think this is why Rockbound ultimately won Canada Reads and became a bestseller: it is a fun read that can be taken in by a general audience as a superficially good story and, for the more advanced readers, Day has crafted a thematically complex novel that can pull you in a variety of directions.
As a brief post-script, this novel is just begging to be made into a CBC mini-series.