The Labradorians

Lynne Fitzhugh’s The Labradorians is a hefty but accessible volume of Labrador’s regional history.  In one book, Fitzhugh provides both a handy, well-put-together collection of Labrador voices and her own thoughtful, diligently researched celebration of Labrador’s social history.  Altogether it makes for an valuable addition to any Labrador bookshelf.

From a more critical perspective, the book’s virtues and defects are ably summarized in a contemporary review by James Hiller.  Hiller calls The Labradorians a “superior amateur history based on an excellent idea,” while judging that it winds up more an “ambitious, romantic exercise” than a scholarly work. (Which, to be fair, is about what it intended to be.)

Fitzhugh’s “excellent idea” is to present Labrador’s history by collecting material from Them Days, thereby ensuring that the history is told by Labradorians themselves.  This approach provides us with a “people’s history,” as Hiller puts it—and in the mean time the book achieves its goal of securing a wider readership for the original Them Days stories.  Each selection, as Fitzhugh explains in her preface, was made to reflect “story, style, and character.”  Put another way, she looked for instances of “palpable Labrador talking” (vii).  The emphasis is placed, quite rightly, on transcribed oral histories, which have been Them Days’s speciality since the beginning.

The basic concept behind The Labradorians also makes the book an ideal case study for a whole set of considerations about readership and mediation.  To begin with, it is always fascinating when previously published material is presented in a new context, because the new context inevitably has its own unique elements. Reflecting on those allows us to consider how the material has been reinterpreted or newly understood.

To that end, Fitzhugh’s opening paragraph reveals a good deal:

“When I began sifting through sixty-odd issues of Them Days magazine in 1989 it was with the idea of selecting for a wider readership some of the most colourful stories published in this regional quarterly of oral histories. I found that what I had instead of a simple anthology was the raw material for a social epic, a history of Labrador as it was experienced by the people who have lived there—some of them for thousands of years.” (vi)

The Labradorians was published in 1999, so Fitzhugh worked on the project (mostly part-time as a labour of love), for ten years.  The paragraph above notes a significant shift in her intentions, which seems to have taken place early on.  At first Fitzhugh aimed to bring existing stories to a wider readership.  Later she decided to compose a social epic.  Presumably this shift is the result of her deepening fascination with the Them Days material and her growing appreciation for its richness and significance.  On the other hand, approaching published stories as raw material for a newer, larger story certainly indicates a shift in the sort of finished product that Fitzhugh had in mind.  In this case, the difference probably has much to do with the nature of the intended wider readership—not primarily Labradorian, one assumes.  For readers without extensive personal knowledge of Labrador, a single “epic” is likely to be more comprehensible and more attractive than a collection of disparate oral histories by many authors.

The “epic” approach certainly brings the source material to new readers, and its composition does indeed represent an “ambitious, romantic” undertaking. However, writing an epic also necessarily amounts to telling a whole new story.  As Hiller points out, that is not necessarily a bad thing.  There aren’t many large-scale histories of Labrador out there, after all. In 1999, no book version had been attempted since W.G. Gosling in 1910, though Bill Rompkey would go on to produce The Story of Labrador in 2003, just a few years after The Labradorians was published.

Each author’s new story—Fitzhugh’s epic or Rompkey’s singular “Story of Labrador”—is produced by the combination, or synthesis, of many stories into a single narrative.  This simplification makes the history easier to follow, but it also introduces tendencies towards reductive ideas.  For example, it is clear throughout The Labradorians that Fitzhugh imagines the Labradorians of the title not simply as a loose-knit set of people from Labrador, but as a particular, unified cultural group to be understood in specific terms.  She suggests that the diverse forebears of today’s Labradorians are “components” of “the singular character that today defines ‘the Labradorian’” (page 64).  This idea may be consistent with some of the views expressed in Fitzhugh’s source material, or by her closest Labrador collaborator at the time (Doris Saunders), but it does not recognize the diversity of cultures present in Labrador either historically or today.  Labrador has no “singular character” any more than it has one single epic history.

Anyway, for me at least perhaps the most interesting thing to take from The Labradorians is the fascinating peek that it provides into the larger messages and impressions conveyed by Them Days to an outside readership.  In 1999, Lynne Fitzhugh completed the remarkable and massive undertaking of transforming the first fifteen-plus years of Them Days articles into the format of a general-interest history book. This is a sort of wholesale cultural translation of the Them Days text, from its original Labradorian form into a wider-publishing-world form.

Imagining Fitzhugh surrounded by her initial “sixty-odd issues” of Them Days, or working away in “Labrador South” (as she calls the reading/book-writing space into which she converted her son’s childhood bedroom), one almost gets a sense of the question that must have driven her ever deeper into her project, throughout all her reading and re-reading across that decade of dedicated work.  Fitzhugh herself never quite puts the precise question into words, and very likely it changed somewhat over time.  But to outward appearances, at least, its essence might well have been something like, “What is Them Days all about?  What does it all mean?”

That is a question to which many people have given a lot of thought.  And The Labradorians is Fitzhugh’s definitive answer—at least as of 1999.


Student Cheat Sheet

The Labradorians, by Lynne Fitzhugh (1999)

Author. Lynne Fitzhugh is an American amateur historian.  Her professional career was in other fields: at the time of publishing The Labradorians she was a fundraiser at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC.  Fitzhugh’s initial connection to Labrador came through the work of her husband Bill, an archaeologist at the Smithsonian Institute.
Summary. The Labradorians is two books in one.  It is partly a general-interest, introductory social history of Labrador, as interpreted by Fitzhugh and laid out in the introductory essays for each chapter.  It is also a digest of material from the first two decades of Them Days magazines, repackaged “for a wider readership” as the preface puts it, and lightly furnished with notes, a glossary, and an index.
Origin. The Labradorians evidently arose from Fitzhugh’s deep personal interest in Labrador and particularly Them Days, and also from the enthusiastic collaboration of Doris Saunders, who saw an opportunity to gain greater exposure for the magazine.  The book was published by Breakwater, with support from American funders and the Canada Council.
Legacy. As an accessible, stand-alone regional history, The Labradorians has largely been superseded by Rompkey’s more direct and compact The Story of Labrador.  Nonetheless, as a 1999 review by historian James Hiller notes, in its own right the book remains “handsome” and “absorbing” and “an ambitious, romantic exercise.”  It is also highly useful as a condensation of content from the early years of Them Days, and it is certainly easier to rest on one’s coffee table than 100 magazines.

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

Mills, Morgon. “Book of the Week: The Labradorians.” LILA Online. Labrador Institute, 21 August 2020, lilaonline.ca/2020/08/21/the-labradorians/. Accessed [today’s date].

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