Book Review: David Macfarlane’s The Danger Tree (2014)

The Danger Tree artfully combines family memoir and historical nonfiction. Just as author, David Macfarlane, introduces readers to his maternal family, the Goodyears of Newfoundland, he establishes the major events of the early twentieth century. The event Macfarlane most prominently features is the First World War. For the Goodyears, WWI means “three dead sons paraded past their parents.” For Newfoundland, it’s loss at a grander scale, nearly 1,300 gone—more than half during the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel. Originally titled Come From Away when released in 1991, the book was re-released by HarperCollins in 2014 as The Danger Tree, taking its new title from that July 1st, 1916 battle. In the last chapter, we learn about the “dead, gnarled tree” marking the beginning of No Man’s Land and where 700 of the 800 Newfoundlanders who fought in Beaumont-Hamel were stopped forever in their tracks by an onslaught of German fire.

Macfarlane recounts one grim, landmark event after another, defining the period and place. He delves into the 1914 sealing disaster, the tuberculosis epidemic (the “white plague” in Newfoundland), and the Confederation of Newfoundland with Canada, each time blending the public with the personal. The connections are cleverly delicate. Like when we learn of the probable fate of the Macfarlanes had they not moved from their outport, Ladle Cove, interior to central Newfoundland, Grand Falls. Here’s where Macfarlane introduces the great sealing disaster, referencing Ray Macfarlane, who died in Beaumont Hamel: “They would have fished, raised goats and chickens, caught lobster, grown turnip, and hunted seabirds. They would have killed seals. Ray would have probably gone to the ice with the sealing fleet in the spring of 1914… a birth on a sealing ship was the outport’s traditional test of manhood.”

Macfarlane has an ear for detail and his prose captures it skillfully. The story of Uncle Roland’s deceased wife, Susie Green, for example, presents the white plague. On Roland and Susie’s wedding day, Susie has a “coughing-fit in the Goodyears’ parlor” and people take notice of her slight frame (“Mrs. Goodyear could easily encircle [Susie’s] upper arm with her thumb and forefinger”). No sooner have we met Susie and she has “simply disappeared,” her “prettiness, like some kind of electric current, switched off altogether.” With that, we appreciate how little could be done to save Susie and how lucky Roland was to escape a similar fate.

The book ends as a new era begins. At once, we re-live the climax of war (the Danger Tree); the death of Macfarlane’s grandmother (“the last surviving member of her generation of the Goodyear family”); and the pulling up of the railway ties in Newfoundland.

And yet, throughout these formidable times, Macfarlane’s prose retains lightness, candour and wit. Originally from Hamilton, Ontario, now living in Toronto, David Macfarlane tells this story, his first book, as a “Come From Away” – what Newfoundlanders call those, naturally, from away. How different his subdued, mostly uneventful Hamilton life and paternal family are in comparison to Newfoundland and the Goodyears. Newfoundland, a one-time British colony, apart from Canada, feels many more miles away than can ever adequately be captured in the actual distance between Hamilton and Grand Falls. And so, Macfarlane tells this story the only way he knows how: “England’s history, Newfoundland’s history, and the Goodyears’ history were more or less the same thing for me,” he writes. We meet the characters, out of place in Hamilton when they visit, dressed more for church than poolside in the summer heat, and can’t help but fall instantly in love. The uncles who could never agree, the grandfather who cursed confederation and the aunt and grandmother who didn’t suffer fools, among others down the line.

The Danger Tree was Macfarlane’s first book and it won the Canadian Author’s Association award for non-fiction, while also becoming a best-seller in this country, the U.K. and the U.S. It was re-released under its new title, presumably to separate it from the award-winning Broadway musical of the same name.

Macfarlane later published two novels, Summer Gone (1999), which was nominated for the Giller Prize and won the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Prize; and, most recently, The Figures of Beauty (2013). He has written illustrated books (What Will Be Has Always Been: An Illustrated History of Toronto); edited books of essays (Toronto: A City Becoming); among others. Living in Toronto, David Macfarlane was also an arts and culture columnist for The Toronto Star. He continues to publish in a variety of newspapers and magazines, having won National Magazine Awards and a National Newspaper Award. Most recently, Macfarlane has taken to the stage as a playwright: he turned The Danger Tree into the play, Fishwrap; and created/produced Toronto Suite, among other works.

As a work of creative nonfiction, The Danger Tree could have easily been two books – a memoir and a work of historical nonfiction. But its brilliance is how it captures world history and personal history together. Through a flawless interweaving of the personal stories of the Goodyears and the public events of that time, we learn about the characters in and the character of a specific time and place. The book abandons a chronology, and yet remains tightly fixed to period and place too. The sheer volume of history this book covers is staggering—beyond those already mentioned, Macfarlane relays the sinking of the Titanic, the tsunami on the Burin Peninsula and the early history of the Beothuk people. All the while, he takes us deeper into the life of the Goodyears in central Newfoundland, to their pulp and paper mill town, reachable by the roads they helped build. How we don’t get lost along the way is remarkable and a credit to Macfarlane’s skillful writing.

He captures major themes succinctly too. For example, Newfoundland’s inability to protect her interests: “the island could only give itself away, limb by limb; it was too poor, too meagerly populated, and too undercapitalized to offer investors a worthwhile return on either its creations or its promise.” Or he encapsulates the popular sentiment of the term Newfie: “Newfoundlanders accepted the Newfie joke with a certain equanimity… they weren’t averse to laughing at themselves… And there were elements of the Newfie role that Newfoundlanders happily accepted: the rambunctiousness, the irreverence, the sly wit, the offbeat sense of humour, the modest openness.”

The book serves as something of an “end-notes essay” too.  Macfarlane opens up his research process as part of the storytelling. We tagalong as he visits past and present, patches of wilderness, hospital beds, tombstones, libraries. He even enters former and first Newfoundland premier’s house, Joey Smallwood’s place (when Smallwood is not there, no less) and recounts the summer he worked with two “Newfs,” George and Danny. Nothing is off limits and it’s this dedication to an immersion experience that grants Macfarlane a credible, insider perspective. This is a story only he could ever tell, and I’m awestruck by it.

 

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