American author Annie Proulx published The Shipping News
in 1993. It is one of a handful of novels that won the American Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in the same year. It has been praised for its quirky humor and detailed sense of character. Its themes include enduring family secrets and the curative powers of small-town life.
Each chapter opens with a quote from The Ashley Book of Knots
(1944), an encyclopedia of knots and knot patterns. The third person omniscient
story begins with a quick description of Quoyle, the novel’s protagonist. Quoyle(pronounced “QU-yle”) is a 36-year-old man born in Brooklyn and raised in various small, boring towns in upstate New York. He has not had any great success in love (his wife only loved him for one month) or a career (besides working as a cashier for a 24/7 bodega, Quoyle has worked as a “third-rate newspaperman.” Feeling that he has no control over his life, he decides to return to Newfoundland, Canada where his ancestors are from. This plan was originally suggested by Quoyle’sAunt Agnis Hamm, or as she’s known for most of the story, “the aunt.”
Part of Quoyle’s emotional brokenness stems from the fact that his parents, who never much loved him, recently completed a suicide pact. His wife, Petal Bear, died in a car accident while driving with another man. Quoyle remains emotionally unstable due to her frequently cruel taunts and because she tried to sell both of their young daughters to a pimp.
Quoyle arrives in Newfoundland with his aunt and two daughters, Bunny (age 6) and Sunshine (age 4.5). They find their old family home on Quoyle Point.Though the house needs a lot of repair, Quoyle and his handy aunt are ready to fix it up. They also figure that the extreme isolation of the place will be good for them.The house is miles from town and the dirt road can barely handle any cars. Afriend finds him a newspaper job in Killick-Claw, a fictional town. Killick-Claw is modeled on a real harbor town called Old Bonaventure.
Quoyle works at The Gammy Bird
, the local paper that everyone in the smalltown reads. The staff is mostly made up of older sailors: Jack Buggit, the charming (if irascible)editor; Ted Card, the copyeditor who allows many nonsensical typos and errors in the paper, which Buggit finds hilarious; and Nutbeem, who simply transcribes world news from the radio.
Quoyle is assigned to the shipping news. He reports on the arrival and departures times for ships in the harbor. This news is critical for sailors and a sign of economic hope in a town with chronic underemployment. The Gammy Bird
, overall, is a sensational paper. As editor, Buggit requires that there be at least one picture of a car accident every week, even when there’s no car accident in the surrounding areas. For unclear reasons, Buggit assigns Quoyle the car wreck stories in addition to the shipping news. The assignments disturb Quoyle; with each photograph of a car accident he takes, he thinks about what happened to his late wife.
Life continues on. The aunt’s dog, Warren, dies. The dog held a special meaning to her; it was named after her lover, Irene Warren. Dennis Buggit, the son of the editor, puts his carpenter skills to good use and helps the aunt and Quoyle fix the old house.Bunny starts to get anxious around a white dog no else can see. Quoyle eventually overcomes his fear of sailing and purchases a shoddy boat.
The aunt starts an upholstery business in town. Her first assignment is a sketchy one; she is to work on an expensive Dutch vessel, Tough Baby
, that was supposedly built for Hitler. People around town add various things to the myth of the vessel, including the fact that during a massive hurricane, the yacht/vessel rammed into several houses and other boats, damaging them beyond repair. Quoyle interviews these townsfolk for The Gammy Bird
, and his profile is such a success that Buggit asks him to be their brand new “ship-columnist.” As luck would have it, the couple who owns the vessel built for Hitler leave town without paying the aunt.
One day, Billy Pretty, another reporter at The Gammy Bird
, takes Quoyle out to Gaze Island, where Billy was born and where Quoyle’s ancestors are buried. Pretty tells Quoyle that his family has a fairly bad reputation around town; they’re thought to be stupid and not above stealing from others or even murdering them. Quoyle nods, seemingly agreeing with this.
Returning from Gaze Island to town, the duo finds a suitcase on a rock in the middle of the water. They open the suitcase to find the head of Bayonet Melville, one of the owners of the Dutch yacht.
Overtime, Quoyle falls in love with Wavey Prowse, a lithe, quiet woman he frequently sees around town. She’s often joined by her young son, Herry, who has Down Syndrome. One day, Quoyle and Wavey comes close to making love, but Wavey, haunted by thoughts of her dead husband, who drowned, quickly puts a stop to the romance.
Nolan, a distant cousin of Quoyle’s, claims the family house belongs to him. The town is increasingly effected by modern technology: factory ships are replacing smaller, locally-owned vessels; oil tankers and nearby drilling occasionally spoils recent catches of fish.
One day, Quoyle sees a floating body near Quoyle Point. He tries saving it, but instead capsizes the boat. He realizes the headless body must belong to Bayonet Melville. Fortunately, he’s found by Jake Buggit and saved. Quoyle finds Nolan sleeping by the hallway to his daughters’ room. He thinks of fighting him, but, realizing he’s mentally unstable, takes his cousin to a mental institution right after Christmas. When Quoyle visits the locked-up Nolan a few days later. Nolan divulges a horrible secret: Quoyle’s father once raped the aunt—his own sister.
In early spring, the aunt returns around the time of a major storm. The family house ends up falling off of a rock and into the sea. One day, Wavey Prowse brings Bunny a white dog. The girl loves it, and Wavey and Quoyle grow closer.Weeks later, Jake Buggit doesn’t return home from lobster fishing. When a search party finds him, apparently dead, they see that his foot was caught on a particularly strong piece of rope, the slingstone hitch.Miraculously, during his own funeral wake, Jake starts coughing; alive, he tells his story to the town.Having healed himself from a less than ideal past, Quoyle is ready for marriage; he asks Wavey, who says yes.