March 2023

Contents Related Letters

Re: “Unknown Fathoms,” by David Marks Shribman

In his discussion of Hard Aground, Bett Fitzpatrick’s book about the heroic rescues by Newfoundlanders in the 1942 shipwrecks of the USS Pollux and USS Truxtun, David Marks Shribman suggests that the event could have been celebrated in a play, similar to the musical Come from Away. In fact, the Newfoundland theatre company Artistic Fraud did just that in 2011.

Robert Chafe’s Oil and Water focuses on the story of Lanier Phillips, an eighteen-year-old serviceman and the only African American survivor of the Truxtun. Phillips was covered in thick black oil when he was pulled out of the sea; the rescuers attempted to scrub the black from his body but to no avail. Many of the townspeople in St. Lawrence had never before seen a person of colour, but they treated Phillips with respect and dignity. And that changed his whole philosophy of life and spurred him on to success as a civil rights activist in the United States. Many years later, in 2008, he received an honorary doctorate from Memorial University.

Oil and Water, with a score that blends Celtic folk and African American gospel songs, gave me the same feelings of elation and pride that I later felt watching Come from Away.

Carol Bishop-Gwyn

I was struck by David Marks Shribman’s recounting of the USS Truxtun and USS Pollux disaster. However, there’s an epilogue to the tale that he didn’t mention.

There was a lone Black survivor of the shipwreck. Hauled unconscious up the cliff, he woke up terrified to find himself naked, surrounded by white women of the small local community who were trying to wash the tarry bunker C oil from the survivors’ bodies. Having grown up in the Deep South, the grandson of a slave, this survivor found the situation terrifyingly dangerous.

He heard a woman remark that despite her hard scrubbing, the oil had gotten so deep into his pores that she couldn’t get it out. “You won’t get it out, ma’am,” he mumbled. “That’s the colour of my skin.” To which she replied, “Don’t you worry, sir. I’ll get it off!”

Violet Pike had never met a Black man before; Lanier Phillips had never met a non-racist white woman. Over the next few days, he recuperated at her home, where he was treated like one of her family. It was the first time he ever sat at a dinner table with white people.

Phillips was galvanized by his near-death experience and rescue. He campaigned for civil rights in the U.S. Navy and went on to march beside Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma, Alabama. In retirement, he became a powerful public speaker for racial equality.

Chris Brookes
St. John's

Re: “Where the Sidewalk Ended,” by Pamela Divinsky

Thanks for one of the more nuanced reviews of Sideways and for drawing attention to a structural matter my editor and I often discussed as it came together: the role of a reporter-written book in letting the facts speak for themselves versus being prescriptive.

via Twitter

Re: “It Thinks, Therefore . . . ?,” by Alexander Sallas

I very much enjoyed Alexander Sallas’s review of Mark Kingwell’s Singular Creatures. I think one of the more important conversations to be had today involves the ethics of artificial intelligence. However, Sallas does get one thing wrong: the best episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation is actually “The Inner Light.”

David Rhind

Re: “Ruff Ride,” by Rose Hendrie

Okay. Rose Hendrie really, really, really disliked Lesley Choyce’s Around England with a Dog. But why devote three pages to a carping harangue?

Pam Kapelos
Charlottesville, Virginia

Isn’t it strange to enjoy a panning review? I did so with this take on Around England with a Dog. The book itself sounds dreadful, though I bet that all of Lesley Choyce’s pals and loyal admirers, who couldn’t care less who Bill Bryson is, will buy copies just the same. What Choyce has done is the literary equivalent of wearing Crocs to the office, and, sure, that may be acceptable post-pandemic or around Lawrencetown Beach, Nova Scotia — but it needn’t be broadcast.

Joel Henderson
Gatineau, Quebec

Re: “The Azores,” by Richard Sanger

In my favourite poems, the human voice speaks. The artful use of words opens a path, to be sure, with plenty of space for thought, feeling, and mystery. But a human way is opened, even in such works of rigorous form as Shakespeare’s sonnets. And so it is with Richard Sanger’s haunting poem “The Azores.” I felt the journey, the circling, the savouring, the remembrance, even before fate’s final blows closed the door: “you meant to, went to go, wanted to, won’t.”

Despite the human finality of these words, in the larger sense, something is wrung here from death — something that, in a special and limited sense, defeats it. The words will continue to speak.

I was sorry, but not entirely surprised, to read that this poem was published posthumously. It had the mark of first and last things about it.

Robert Girvan

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