Woman of Labrador

The Book of the Week will be a recurring feature here on LILA Online, showcasing Labrador books.  I’ll try to select a mix of famous titles and more obscure ones.  That way, while we learn a bit more about some of Labrador’s most significant works, we will also shine light on other interesting titles that maybe not everyone is aware of yet.  Today, however, we begin with the most obvious possible choice.

The Nimbus e-book edition of Woman of Labrador,
which is available online from both NLPL and Memorial

Woman of Labrador, by Elizabeth Goudie

There are really two phases of writing about Labrador: everything that came before Woman of Labrador, and everything that came after.  That’s how big a deal Elizabeth Goudie’s memoir was upon publication.  As the first published book by a Labradorian, Woman of Labrador began a shift away from other people writing about Labrador to local people taking charge of how Labrador’s stories would be told.  This trend took off right away, too, when it immediately became clear what an appetite Labradorians had for reading their own stories, as told in their own words.  In fact, the idea for Them Days magazine emerged the very same year, and the first magazine appeared soon after, in 1975.

But what is Woman of Labrador about?  And why does it remain even today arguably the most famous Labrador book?

In short, it is the life story of Elizabeth Goudie, a woman from central Labrador, as told by Goudie herself, looking back later in life.  She worked on her manuscript for several years, sharing it widely among family, friends, and interested local readers, before it was finally published in 1973, when she was 71 years old.  At the time, it was quite remarkable and rare for a Northern, Indigenous woman to write a book, but in fact for Goudie, writing was already a family tradition.  Diary- and memoir-writing was quite popular among her recent ancestors, and especially among the women of the family (we’ll feature some other examples on this site before long, I am sure!).  Publishing the book, however, was truly a big step.

Woman of Labrador is particularly valuable today not only as the story of an intelligent, hard-working, and visionary woman, but also as the story of her society, which Goudie considered to be defined by Labrador’s trappers.  “This writing of our life and the life of the Labrador trappers” is how she herself describes the book in its final chapter (see page 194 in the Nimbus e-book edition, which is available online from both NLPL and Memorial).  The book’s timeline covers a pivotal period in Labrador’s history, which saw the military development of Goose Bay and the industrialization of Labrador West.  These changes transformed Labradorians’ ways of life, ushering in, among other things, modern technology and infrastructure and a cash economy.  Goudie’s children grew up both before and after the establishment of the military base, and she noted the tremendous difference that the changing times made to their lives, both for better and for worse.

Goudie’s main themes and perspectives are still strikingly relevant today.  She very consciously looked forward as well as backward when she wrote, to a degree that is perhaps somewhat unusual for a memoir.  For example, her closing chapter is written in two parts: “What Life Has Meant” and “Looking Forward.”  In the first part, she describes being torn about the changes she has witnessed, comparing the hard, but happy traditional life before the development of Goose Bay with the easier, but in some ways more sorrowful modern life afterwards.  In the second part of the chapter, she calls on future writers and generations, beginning with the words, “I hope the people of Labrador will take a stand for themselves” (196).  She emphasizes the importance of seeking education, too—music to the ears of a reader like me at the university!  And the very last major topics she touches on should be especially familiar to all Labradorians today.  Goudie’s final paragraph raises questions about the treatment of the Grand River and offers thoughts on what it means to “strive to live in peace with one another” and “live right” (197).

However one reacts to Elizabeth Goudie’s politics, or to her ideas about Labrador and its people, it remains a landmark achievement for her to have so eloquently addressed Labradorians as a whole in a published book, with the idea that they were one people with more commonalities than differences.  At the same time, it must be said that not everybody in Labrador belonged to the sort of trapping family that Goudie writes about, and she herself was only one woman of Labrador, not the woman.  Even though she lived in a few different places in Labrador, including at Davis Inlet, and even though she had mixed heritage, it’s fair to wonder whether she really could speak for everyone in all parts of Labrador, Innu or Inuit, settler or newcomer, North Coast or South Coast, Central or West.  But of course, nobody can!  And while there may be some danger in an oversimplified notion of “the Labrador people,” there is also great wisdom in Elizabeth Goudie’s core lesson:

“The name Labrador holds something hard to explain but I would like to explain it in my own way, and that is peace.” (195)

Student Cheat Sheet

Our cheat sheets will present the key facts for the book of the week in under 250 words total, divided across four categories: who the author is, what the book is about, how it originated, and what legacy it has left behind (so far).

Woman of Labrador, by Elizabeth Goudie (1973)

Author. Elizabeth Goudie is the self-described “woman of Labrador” of the title. Born in Mud Lake in 1902, of mixed ancestry, she later moved to Happy Valley, where she died in 1982.
Summary. Woman of Labrador is a memoir spanning the first 70 years of Goudie’s life, and also an account of early twentieth-century central Labrador society.  The book emphasizes the changes brought about by the development of Goose Bay, and celebrates and mourns the passing of a cultural moment centred on what Goudie calls “the trapper’s life.”
Origin. Goudie had been working on her memoir for some time when she met visiting MUN anthropology student David Zimmerly.  He helped “edit and process” the text, which Peter Martin Associates published as Woman of Labrador soon after. Zimmerly’s introduction to the book covers similar themes as his dissertation on “culture change in central Labrador,” submitted that same year.
Legacy. Woman of Labrador may be the most well-recognized Labradorian-authored book ever. It has been republished several times, and has often been assigned reading in local high schools.  Goudie received an honorary doctorate from MUN in 1975, and a local provincial government building bears her name.  Prompted by the book, the National Film Board produced A Family of Labrador, in 1978; and in 1979 musician Andy Vine wrote the song “Woman of Labrador,” which was later recorded by Figgy Duff.  Dale Blake, Kristina Fagan, and Roberta Buchanan, among others, have written academic essays on Goudie’s work.

Working on a book report for school?  Here’s how to cite this article:

Mills, Morgon. “Book of the Week: Woman of Labrador.” LILA Online. Labrador Institute, 28 April 2020, lilaonline.ca/2020/04/28/book-of-the-week-woman-of-labrador/. Accessed [today’s date].

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