On the evening of January 15, 2010, the Sussex Royal Legion in Sussex, New Brunswick, was transformed into an 1860s sailing ship for the launching of my new novel, The Sea Captain’s Wife.
Angelika Glover, my editor at Knopf Canada, came from Toronto. I had obtained a costume for her from Kings Landing Historical Settlement. We helped each other into vast crinolines, long dresses, detachable sleeves. In our 1870s house, I was struck by the sight of Angelika as she stood in the hallway adjusting her collar in the mirror. And then again as I saw her coming through the back door into the winter dusk, and as she and I rustled our long skirts over the snow in the deep country quiet. This is what literature is about, I thought; the thrill of entering another time, another world.
Perhaps it was this feeling that gripped every visitor to the Legion that night. People were greeted by high school students in costume, a six-foot-tall lighthouse, the sound of a fog horn and a cloud of fog. The room’s lighting was low, with pools of light illuminating photos and paintings of nineteenth century sailing ships and shipyards, and tables covered with objects gleaned from attics, or on loan from museums: ship’s logs, sextants, tools, even a captain’s sea chest. The Sea Captain’s Wife spilled from a leather trunk on the Indigo table; the manager and her assistant had travelled an hour from Saint John. There was the swish of long skirts, the half-giddy pleasure of women dressed in period costume. One woman wore a wedding dress from the 1840s. My son was resplendent in a brown beaver top hat and silk ruffled vest. A pirate appeared wearing a hoop earring and eye patch. The room smelled of chowder that simmered on the kitchen’s big stoves, attended by many volunteer cooks. Hundreds of biscuits were baked. A sea shanty group, “Before the Mast,” sat in a boat at the front of the room next to the stage – and the stage itself was a ship’s prow, with a life-sized figurehead made for the occasion, a huge canvas jib hung from a spar, and a ship’s wheel.
At seven o’clock, people began pouring in. They came and came. People reported that three adjacent parking lots were filled and that a line stretched far down the snowy sidewalk. The sea shanty group began to sing as the chairs filled and people jostled for space along walls. My neighbour and friend Kevin, dressed in a period captain’s outfit, was the emcee. I was introduced by the event’s organizer, Patricia, the high school librarian who had worked tirelessly, serving as the hub of a wheel of about 25 volunteers. As I read, I experienced the palpable energy of 500 utterly silent people. Afterwards, I thanked people in the crowd who had helped with the book in diverse ways: the veterinarian who told me how horses were disposed of in the 1860s, the doctor who had researched nineteenth century medicine. The sea shanty group sang again. People milled about, chatting with the women who had made the chowder, swapping yarns at the artifact tables, buying beer at the Legion bar, meeting old friends.
And they waited patiently in line to buy books. I signed and signed, for two hours. One man said to me, “I heard about this event on CBC. I told my wife we were going to go to it. ‘Harry, you don’t read!’ she said. ‘I’m going to read THIS book, I told her.’” To my astonishment, a couple told me they had come from Nova Scotia. And others from Fredericton, Saint John, Sackville.
It was a success beyond the wildest expectations of SLICE, Sussex Literary Initiatives and Cultural Events. We will all be talking about it in years to come, a warm, vibrant outpouring of community pride and support – just as we still tell tales of the Age of Sail.