The Labrador Fiasco

This week’s Labrador Book of the Week is another example, like H.G. Wells’s Marriage, of a little-known Labrador book from a big-name author.

Margaret Atwood needs no introduction.  These days her name first brings to mind the screen adaptation of her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, or maybe her publication of a sequel, entitled The Testaments, just last year. On the other hand, Atwood first won a Governor General’s Award for poetry more than 50 years ago, in 1966, and she hasn’t really left the limelight since.

Did you know that she has also written about Labrador?

In the mid-1990s, Atwood’s UK publisher, Bloomsbury, decided to celebrate its tenth anniversary by publishing ten small books, priced at one pound each, in a series called “Bloomsbury Quids.”  Each book was to contain a single short story, and since Atwood’s newest book Alias Grace was to be published on the very same day, she was naturally invited to contribute a story for one of the volumes.  The Labrador Fiasco was the result.  Happily, since the publication was intended as a promotion from the very outset, it was also made available online, and you can still find it on the website of the London-based Independent News.

“The Labrador Fiasco” is a story-within-a-story.

Which story shall I talk about first?

You wouldn’t know it from The Labrador Fiasco alone, but the framing narrative actually fits into a larger body of Atwood’s work about a character named Nell, who is featured in a short story collection published 10 years later, under the title Moral Disorder.  In The Labrador Fiasco, Nell and the reader both bear witness to her aging father’s tragic decline from stroke and memory loss.  As a metaphor to explain his bewilderment, Nell likens her father’s suffering to the misadventures of the principal characters of his favourite book, which her mother reads to him in the evenings over the course of the story.

The book in question is The Lure of the Labrador Wild, though its title is never given, and the “fiasco” is the failure of Leonidas Hubbard’s 1903 expedition.  Within Labrador, the expedition story likely needs as little introduction as Atwood herself.  In short: Hubbard, his friend Dillon Wallace, and their hired guide George Elson set off inland from North West River, hoping to reach Lake Michikamau (now part of the Smallwood Reservoir), and then to follow the George River down and out into Ungava Bay. It was an ambitious undertaking, for which they (or at least Hubbard and Wallace) proved to be ill-prepared.  Hubbard died of starvation and exposure, and Wallace was rescued from the same fate only by Elson’s heroism.

“We’ll be fine,” he says, but he sounds dubious. He doesn’t trust me, and he is right.

from The Labrador Fiasco

The story has been told many times—including by Wallace, who published Lure in 1905, and by Elson, whose narrative was appended to Mina Hubbard’s A Woman’s Way Through Unknown Labrador in 1908.  Just to pick two more prominent sources, since this is after all a blog about books:

  • John West Davidson and John Rugge retold the story in Great Heart: The History of a Labrador Adventure in 1988; and
  • Elliott Merrick, the author of some famous Labrador books of his own, included a version in 1992, in The Long Crossing and Other Labrador Stories.

Despite the familiarity of the story (or because of it), it is definitely worth checking out Atwood’s take. She brings her characteristic, literary writing style to the tale and offers a new perspective on the ways in which Hubbard’s and Wallace’s story is experienced second-hand by its readers. Atwood has Nell’s father respond to Hubbard’s and Wallace’s blunders, miscalculations, and bad luck in ways that will absolutely ring true to anyone who has heard Labrador outdoorsmen talk about the journey. Plus, Atwood herself demonstrates, by her decision to rewrite the story in itself, how much interest Hubbard, Wallace, and Elson continue to inspire in circles far beyond Labrador, even after so many years.

Recent editions of The Lure of the Labrador Wild, Great Heart, and A Woman’s Way Through Unknown Labrador are all available from the public library (and there is even an audiobook for Lure). In addition, scans of the original editions of Lure and Woman’s Way are also available online.

Student Cheat Sheet

The Labrador Fiasco, by Margaret Atwood (1996)

Author.  Margaret Atwood is one of the the biggest names in Canadian literature.  Primarily a fiction writer, poet, and critic, she was born in Ottawa in 1939 and has lived in Toronto for many years.  Perhaps her most famous books are the novels The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace.
Summary.  The Labrador Fiasco tells a story-within-a-story in a brief 4,000 words.  Atwood’s unnamed narrator sits with her elderly parents while her mother reads to her father from Dillon Wallace’s The Lure of the Labrador Wild.  The father has suffered a stroke, and the story juxtaposes his struggles with physical and cognitive decline with Wallace’s own narrative of bewilderment and starvation in the Labrador interior.
Origin.  Atwood’s interest in wilderness survival stories dates back at least to her seminal 1972 book, Survival.  This story in particular owes its unusual print format to a series of very small books called “Bloomsbury Quids,” celebrating the publisher’s tenth anniversary. Each book sold for one British pound and contained a single short story by a well-known author.
Legacy.  The Labrador Fiasco attracted several critical reviews, and it is certainly of note within the larger body of Wallace and Hubbard lore.  The full text has long been freely available from the website of the Independent News.  It was also collected in Atwood’s book of interrelated short stories, Moral Disorder (2006), wherein we learn from other entries that the narrator’s name is Nell.

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

Mills, Morgon. “Book of the Week: The Labrador Fiasco.” LILA Online. Labrador Institute, 29 May 2020, Accessed [today’s date].

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