Book Review: Oatcakes and Courage by Joyce Grant-Smith

oatcakesbookOatcakes and Courage (2013, Quattro) by Joyce Grant-Smith was the 2013 co-winner of the Ken Klonsky Novella Contest. It’s 125 pages are filled with the tense, realistic story of a small ship (the Hector) of Scottish migrants bound for Pictou, Nova Scotia in 1773.


Among the passengers is Anne Grant, who is escaping a marriage arranged by her father to a man she does not love or is even attracted to. In fact, she is repelled by the man. Aiding her in her escape is Ian MacLeod, Anne’s life-long friend who has already booked passage for himself on the Hector in order to start a new life in Canada. Anne pleads with Ian to take her along on the passage, and Ian, seeing her determination, and feeling sorry her plight if she stays, reluctantly agrees. Under cover of darkness, they leave their homes to make the long walk to Ullapool, where the Hector is at anchor. Along the way, they are pursued by the ‘thin rider’ a mysterious man on horseback presumably sent by Anne’s father to track her down and get her married. Avoiding him, they manage to secure passage for Anne, who poses as Ian’s newlywed wife.

A Novella That Should Have Been a Novel?

This novella really excels at describing the close, inadequate and practically inhumane living conditions for the passengers aboard the Hector:

“Anne pressed her way through the many bodies to her bunk.The ever-present stench of sweat and fear and human effluent hung heavily in the cramped space.”

They are packed in to maximize the most monetary gain for the ship’s owner. Many prefer to live and sleep on deck, avoiding the horrid conditions below. Of course, situations like this breed disease and dysentery and smallpox outbreaks occur, affecting the young ones the most. Soon, Anne is pressed into helping other destitute wives and mothers care for their children. There are many deaths along the way to make matters worse. The narratives and dialogues during this time kept me riveted to the story. The terrible conditions on board the Hector (which turns out to be a leaky, rotten ship) and a sudden storm that blows the ship off course keep the realism of the migrant’s plight to the fore and you will find yourself relieved when, along with the passengers, land is finally sighted.

Disappointingly, this novella feels like only half a story. So much of the novella is spent at sea, that it would have been nice to see what happens when the immigrants reach terra firma. For instance, did the ‘thin rider’ give up in his pursuance of Anne, or did he follow her to the New World? Perhaps a sequel is in the works? One can only hope so.

At any rate, a well-told story and Joyce Grant-Smith is a Canadian writer to watch.

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