As a rule, I avoid musicals. I find that for my taste most have too much music in them. But there I was, in a sold-out 1,100-seat theater on Prince Edward Island, watching a musical adaptation of the novel Anne of Green Gables.
I was enjoying myself, too. Except that the woman next to me kept beating the actors to some of the best lines.
“You’ve seen this before?” I asked her during intermission.
I gave her a sidelong look, reassured to note that at least she had not, as had many of the young girls in the audience, braided her hair into Anne-style pigtails.
“It’s a nice play,” I said. “But why would you want to see it nine times?”
“Because Anne of Green Gables,” she said unhesitatingly, “is Prince Edward Island.”
The woman was the leader of a group of retirees from Pittsburgh who were on a bus tour of Canada’s Maritime Provinces. Her husband, who drove the bus, would have been sitting next to her, but I had his ticket.
“First he was coming. Then he wasn’t. Something to do with the bus. So we turned in his ticket. By the time he’d changed his mind again, they’d already resold it to you. That’s him waving to us, down there in the cheap seats.”
Waving back, without much enthusiasm, I asked the woman if there were no other reason she came to Prince Edward Island. To admire, for instance, its famous blood-red soil.
“You think red soil is nice? Ask my husband about trying to wash it off the bus.”
I did not ask her husband about the soil, figuring he was probably not favorably disposed toward me to begin with. But during the week I spent on the island I did ask other people about it. Just as I asked people what Prince Edward Island meant to them.
Some I talked to agreed with the woman from Pittsburgh. They seemed to see the island as a theme park. They were there to walk through the pages of the novel, first published in 1909, about a rural Prince Edward Island community where a red-headed orphan named Anne (spelled with an “e,” the heroine pleads, “A-n-n-e looks so much more distinguished”) continually got herself into scrapes that would have been the envy of Tom Sawyer himself.
“We know the story is a fiction,” said the father of a Japanese family waiting in a long line to have their cards home postmarked from the Green Gables Post Office. “But Prince Edward Island is so much the same as we have read, that we are looking everywhere for Anne of the red hair.”
Saying the island is the same as it is depicted in the novel is putting the case too strongly. Cavendish, the north-shore community that author Lucy Maud Montgomery used as the model for the one where Anne grew up, is now home to the Royal Atlantic Wax Museum, the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum, the King Tut’s Tomb & Treasures, the Rainbow Valley Family Fun Park, The Great Island Adventure Park, the Anne Shirley Motel and Cabins, Anne’s Windy Poplars, Ann’s (without an “e”) Maple Cottage, the Green Gables Bungalow Court, and the Green Gables Golf Course.
And it appears that one of the novel’s principal characters is now running Matthew’s Market, and another – who was faced with an uncertain financial future when the story ended – is rolling in the dough at Marilla’s Pizza.
Yet outside Cavendish, which was visited by 300,000 tourists last year (many of them from Japan, where one edition of Anne of Green Gables is now in its 99th printing), there are still island communities surprisingly similar in spirit to the ones Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote about nearly a century ago. And there still are, as one retired schoolteacher told me, “lots of characters Lucy Maud could have done wonders with.”
To them, soil not red is unnatural soil. And Prince Edward Island is not just home, it is the center of the universe. It is not “an” island; it is The Island. And every place beyond its shore is lumped into the general category of “away.” Which is why there was a time when everyone arriving on the island, whether a returning resident or first-time visitor, was greeted, or so the story goes, with “Welcome home.”
Home, and the center of the universe, to Prince Edward Islanders is a place one outsider accurately but rather unkindly described as “the sand dune in the Gulf of St. Lawrence that passes for a province.” By far Canada’s smallest province, Prince Edward Island is a 139-mile-long crescent of sandy red rock, silt, and clay deposited by ancient streams over millions of years.
The Micmac – the Indians who were in residence when the Europeans first arrived – called it Abegweit, meaning “cradled on the waves,” but a later, and perhaps more apt, description is “the million-acre farm.” That red soil, whose color is derived from iron oxide, is excellent for growing the crops that account for the other predominant color on the island: green.
A low landscape of the type beloved by bicyclers and berated by insurers of waterfront homes, Prince Edward Island is fringed on the north shore by huge dunes that range in color from quartz white to rust red.
But with the exception of Charlottetown, the provincial capital, and a few other smaller population centers, most of the island is gently rolling farmland, planted in large measure with tidy row upon tidy row of green-topped root crops, chief among them the potato.
Also gently rolling is the seabed that extends beyond the island’s shore. The bottom shelves off so gradually that in many places it is still only fifty feet deep a full ten miles off the beach, producing an environment that is nearly ideal for lobsters – and lobster fishermen.
Emerson MacLeod, a retired lobster fisherman who lives “down east,” near a village called Murray Harbour, remembers when lobsters were so thick along the shore that you could tell who the poor kids were, because they were the ones who brought lobster sandwiches to school. When MacLeod started lobstering in 1924, at the age of 13, island fishermen earned about $3 per 100 lobsters. Now, it’s about $3 per pound. But expenses have gone up, too. MacLeod’s first boat cost him $125. Nowadays, the going price is nearly $60,000.
Another big difference between lobstering now and in MacLeod’s day is the amount of government regulation and support. In the beginning there really wasn’t any regulation. If a man could tend a thousand traps – and some could – there was nothing to stop him from doing so. “Made for a long day, yep,” MacLeod said.
Now the maximum legal number of traps is 300. Only a certain number of licenses are issued. And the season is only four months long – two months for lobstermen on one part of the island, two months for those on another. As a result of the regulations, the lobster industry onPrince Edward Island appears healthy. But to make it through the winter, most lobstermen go on unemployment. In fact, because of the seasonality of fishing, farming, and tourism – the island’s main sources of employment – a large proportion of the work force spends the winter on unemployment.
I asked MacLeod what difference having unemployment to fall back on has made to fishermen.
“Well, it’s made more fishermen.”
If the lobster industry seems healthy, the potato industry, during my visit, was under siege. A virus had been discovered among the island’s potato crop. Ironically, the virus doesn’t actually do any harm to potatoes, or to people who eat them. But when the virus attacks tobacco, the effect can be devastating. As a result, Prince Edward Island seed potatoes have been banned from the United States for two seasons, and infected crops – so determined by the “potato police” – have been ordered destroyed.
These and other potato issues were what I had hoped to talk about when, near the village of Souris, I walked into the barn of a fair-haired, ruddy-faced farmer named Richard Ching.
We did talk about potato issues, to some extent, because Ching and his brother, Edward, work about 1,200 acres, making theirs one of the larger potato farms on the island. But what we talked about mostly was Ching’s name.
On Prince Edward Island names are very important – perhaps because there seem to be only a few to go around. The majority of islanders are of British stock, particularly from Ireland and – even more – from Scotland. And the number of them who have the same names is so great that in some communities mail has to be addressed with a nickname, which will often include the name of one’s father and grandfather. Among current nicknames, according to one official source, are John James John Dan the Butcher and Felix Alexander Jack Andrew the Gander.
Ching, by comparison, is a relatively rare name on the island. It is possessed by about 15 families, all related and all living within a few miles of each other.
“When most people hear it, they are looking for a Chinese fellow,” Ching told me. “But it’s English. We traced our ancestors back to England. But only a very few families are left over there, and the only thing we could find out about them was that they weren’t a very prolific bunch.”
A much more common name is MacNeill. I spent the night less than two miles from the heart of Cavendish on the dairy farm of Alvin and Eleanor MacNeill, which they run with the help of their two sons, Garth and Kevin, who are both in their late 20s. The MacNeills, I discovered, are related to the MacNeills who were Lucy Maud Montgomery’s maternal grandparents – a connection they don’t seem to see as special.
“To me Lucy Maud never meant much,” said Kevin MacNeill. “A lady tourist was going in to see the play once, so she took us. But I never read any of her books and never studied anything about her in school. I really couldn’t tell you very much about her.”
What he could tell me about was dairy farming. Near sundown I walked across Route 6 with him to help him and his dog herd the cows back across the road and into the milking barn.
“What can I do?” I asked.
“Watch where you step,” he said.
Counting land owned, leased, and rented, the family worked almost 900 acres, Kevin said, with 45 milk cows, 75 beef cattle, 150 pigs, and, throughout the summer, about a dozen tourists a day. The milk cows were the most work, he said, which was why many farmers were giving them up.
“You have to be there twice a day, morning and night, 365 days a year. The younger generation, my age, comin’ up, don’t like that. But Garth and I do.”
“Oops,” I said, forgetting to watch where I stepped.
Kevin put a barrier across the road and brought traffic to a stop. The dog took over from there.
“Sometimes the cars are lined up for a mile. And they say the people are always growlin’ at us. But I don’t worry about it. It’s what they came to see, isn’t it?”
In the barn Garth and Alvin were waiting for us. “I like livin’ on the island,” Garth said. “I went to the city once. I went to Toronto, and I hated it. You walk down the street there, people don’t know you. And they act like they don’t care to know you.”
“Oops,” I said.
On a cold, misty sunday morning, the first day of anything but sunny skies I’d seen since arriving on the island, I left the MacNeills and headed toward North Rustico, just inland from where the beaches and sandstone cliffs of Prince Edward Island National Park are eroding back into the sea about three feet a year. From the way everything along the road was closed up, it was obvious that, outside the main tourist areas, Sunday is taken very seriously as a day of rest. At the harbor a yellow, wood-framed building caught my eye. A sign proclaimed this to be the headquarters of Court Brothers Deep Sea Fishing.
I knocked on the front door, but no one answered. So I walked around back to where the wind was pushing a lobster boat against a rickety dock. No one was out there either, but on the back wall of the building were nailed three fish tails. One was labeled “tuna,” one “shark,” and one “mermaid.”
Across the red dirt road was a house that, by its familiar shade of yellow, could only have been the home of the Court brothers. I walked over and knocked. After considerable commotion by a dog somewhere inside, the door was opened by a man who looked as if he’d just been woken from a nap. While I explained to him that I was a visitor who wanted to learn a little about deep-sea fishing on the island, he eyed me suspiciously and continued to do so for a very long moment after I’d stopped talking.
Finally, he spoke: “You’ll be wantin’ to stay for dinner.”
He was, I learned over the course of the next few hours, Vance Court – one of the four Court brothers in residence (a fifth lives in western Canada), and the only one, he said, not collecting old-age benefits. They were third-generation fishermen, their grandfather having started fishing on the island about 150 years ago. Originally they were commercial fishermen, but the fishing had gotten so poor that about 35 years ago they’d begun taking out tourists. Now, except for a little lobstering, which still pays well, they deal with tourists exclusively, charging twelve dollars a head for four hours of fishing for mackerel, or sometimes cod.
The other three brothers were Emard, Veard, and Quintin, although as words and dishes flew around the heavily burdened dinner table, I was often not sure who said what.
“The hardest part about fishin’? Payin’ the bills.”
“Up in Cavendish, were you? Thirty years ago there was nothin’ in Cavendish. Now, every door somebody is coaxin’ a ten-cent piece out of you.”
“The most unusual thing we found in a lobster trap? Some days, lobster.”
“Dad said when he was a boy you could walk along the shore in rubber boots and pick up enough lobster just with your hands for meals.”
“I say this here government ruined the fishin’. There’s only a certain amount of fish multiplyin’ each year, and the way they allow ’em to fish now, I guess they caught ’em all up.”
“That’s the way the ship goes.”
“They have a 200-mile limit out now. I say the 200-mile limit should have been put out the day Christopher Columbus discovered America.”
“Dad didn’t do any heavy work his last few years. Passed away at 91.”
“Try another piece of cod.”
“These here fish finders on boats, colored like your colored television set, right in front of you. I say…”
I said I had to be moving along. They said not to be a stranger.
Over the next several days, I continued to crisscross the island, stopping occasionally for such things as a lobster supper. On Prince Edward Island, lobster suppers are almost an industry in themselves. The New Glasgow Lobster Suppers, located in the community of the same name, began it all 30 years ago as a way to raise $210 to buy a building for a local social club. Since then the institution has been much imitated.
“I thought we were at least free of competition from McDonald’s, but now they are serving a McLobster too,” said Jean MacRae, one of the owners.
Another institution is the gathering of Irish moss. It’s not moss, but a seaweed from which is extracted a material used in the production of such products as ice cream, toothpaste, and cosmetics. The island is a major world supplier. In the old days most Irish moss was gathered from beaches after a storm. A storm wind from the right direction was called a mosser. But now 80 percent of it is raked off the sea bottom from a boat.
“The hardest part,” said one fisherman, is “gettin’ the boat.”
On the Lennox Island Indian reservation, I was buying something from the handicrafts outlet, when I learned from the cashier that he was Ray Sark, one of three sons of John Sark, a Micmac chief who became a Canadian war hero fighting in Europe, during World War I. While he was in Europe John Sark had married the former Elsie Maud Houghton, an Englishwoman who spent the rest of her life with the Micmac on Prince Edward Island.
“Tell me more,” I said.
“Seventeen ninety-five,” he said, handing me a book titled Micmac by Choice: Elsie Sark – an Island legend.
My final day on Prince Edward island I spent in and around Charlottetown. With a population of just over 15,000, it is a city only by the most generous of definitions. Yet, for Canadians, Charlottetown’s significance goes beyond its size. It was in Charlottetown that the nation of Canada was born. For Prince Edward Islanders, however, it was not an entirely welcome birth.
In 1864 delegates from all the British colonies in North America met in Charlottetown to discuss a Canadian confederation. The meeting went smoothly enough, considering that the circus was in town, making it nearly impossible for the delegates to find anywhere to stay. The groundwork was set for forming, in 1867, the Dominion of Canada. But Prince Edward Island, which today proclaims itself the “Cradle of Confederation,” refused to join.
Basically, the islanders feared that confederation – and all the attendant influences from “away” – might upset their way of life. Concern about the harmful influence of the outside world is still a powerful issue on the island, and is part of an islandwide debate that has been going on for more than a century: Should Prince Edward Island be attached by a bridge or a tunnel to the mainland, eight miles away?
Those in favor of a link (about 60 percent of island residents, according to a straw ballot held in 1988) see it as increasing economic opportunities by providing easier access for potato farmers and tourists. Those who oppose the project see it not only as a threat to the island way of life but an environmental risk as well. “A bridge or tunnel,” said one columnist, “would be Confederation’s equivalent of AIDS.” An extreme view, perhaps. But there is ample reason to believe that with the building of a fixed link something would change.
“There is magic about coming to an island,” said Sandi Gallant, who with her husband, Paul, owns a bed and breakfast in Cornwall, just south of Charlottetown. “And the sense of being on an island influences everything we think and do. But once you have a bridge, it is no longer an island. We will be like everywhere else. And if we are like everywhere else, you won’t have any reason to come.”
Gallantly, so to speak, I suggested that her wonderful breakfasts would be reason enough. Bridge or no bridge, there are not that many places where one can start the day with lobster crepes. But she was right. If a bridge comes, something will be lost. And, later, as I waited in line for the boat trip back to the mainland, I thought of a specific example.
If there were a bridge between Prince Edward Island and the mainland, there would soon be no boat. And if there were no boat, it would be no time at all before we lost such expressions as that of the old down east bachelor who declined to pursue a particular lady on the grounds that “when she brewed tea she raised more smoke than the car ferry.”
It would be a loss, I believe, that would make Anne of Green Gables grieve.