Saskatoon StarPhoenix Review - Been in the Storm So Long
Reviewed by: Bill Robertson
There probably comes a point in most people’s lives when they wonder if they’ll have what it takes to face disaster or mortal threat straight on and not shy away in any form of cowardice. Saskatoon writer Terry Jordan, in his latest novel Been in the Storm So Long, pits his main character, John Healy, against a variety of such threats and we watch as he responds in some disappointing but very human ways, learning about life and himself as he wrestles with his conscience.
John begins life in 1853 in Sligo, Ireland, but his father knows economic disaster when he sees it and moves the family through Halifax to a small Nova Scotian fishing village. There they mix with French Catholics uprooted by governments and wars, and here Jordan eventually settles on his main characters: Healy and his family, Odette Doucet and hers, and the orphan Daniel Burke, taken in by the Doucets.
At 14 John ships out on a schooner, the understanding being that he’ll work his way up to a whaler, something he’s always dreamt of doing. And he does, landing on the Margery Bruce, “a square-rigged triple-masted barque of the old style, bound for the Brazilian Banks and the Falklands … and all those many whales there for the taking.” On this cursed voyage, Jordan mixes in a little of Jack London’s Sea Wolf and some of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd to find John flogged nearly to death by a psychotic first mate, now taken over as captain, after John’s unwillingly smuggled stash of liquor is found. John pays for his naivety, but fortunately slips off the ship near New Orleans. All he has to do is take a new name and pretend he, John Healy, is dead.
News of his death is not received well back home in Nova Scotia when his sea trunk is returned. The townsfolk have a funeral and committal, and heartbroken Odette and dumbfounded but somewhat opportunistic Daniel find themselves comforting each other. Then Daniel meets a seaman who once knew John and tells him a strange tale. Rather than raise any hopes at home, Daniel heads mostly by rail to New Orleans to find his old friend and sometime antagonist.
John, meanwhile, has survived in New Orleans, though his lack of experience with the shadowy ways of the world has continued to land him in various troubles. By the time he and Daniel find one another, that trouble takes the form of a man named Batson, a con man, thief, and master manipulator. Like all cons, he spreads himself munificently for Daniel in the beginning, luring the naive whaler into various kinds of chicanery, increasingly illegal. Daniel and John are lucky to escape back to Nova Scotia, having had experience now with theft, beatings, manslaughter, and near death by arson. At this point we’re about half way through the novel.
In Nova Scotia, Jordan moves around among John, Odette, and Daniel, tracing each of their lives through a calm patch, although disaster looms because of John’s holding Daniel to a promise not to speak of what went on in New Orleans. Once again, John’s naivety pushes him into secrets no man would feel obliged to keep, especially from his wife. It would spoil the story to say any more of what happens from here on, but John’s inability to face up to his own weaknesses has a lot to do with the way good things come undone. From guilt it’s not too far a journey to blame and one of the three is driven to disaster.
More searching, both on land and of the soul, ensues — all of it told in lively, even gripping, fashion — until, finally, cowardice is faced squarely and actual lives can be built on a foundation of truth, however far after the fact and despite how much damage has been done.
Been in the Storm So Long, as historical fiction, requires research, and Jordan has done his work, on pre-Confederation Nova Scotia, on New Orleans, and on whaling and violin making. One of the restful places the wanderers in this novel often go — though violence occasionally rears its head in this area, as well — is to music, and the violin is the primary carrier of various Acadian tunes, both in Nova Scotia and Louisiana.
But whaling and musical research do little to reveal the human heart, which is what this novel is all about. Jordan has looked into a deeply flawed man and asked his readers to empathize with his failings and the terrific effort it takes him to redeem his terrible mistakes. As one character says to John, “I’ve got to thank you for coming. It took something to do that.” No one really wins in this novel, but Jordan’s main character finds a way to stop the losing, and in that aspect he eventually triumphs.