By RYAN KING
Community News Reporter
Newfoundland author, Nellie P. Strowbridge visited the Butterfly Book Boutique on Wednesday, Aug. 11 to promote her latest book, The Hanged Woman’s Daughter. Strowbridge has won national and provincial awards for her work. Her latest is a sequel to the critically acclaimed Catherine Snow, which is based on the true story of the last woman to be hanged in Newfoundland in 1834. The sequel follows Snow’s daughter, Bridget, as she navigates the harsh life of colonial Newfoundland.
A prolific author, Strowbridge’s love of reading and writing began at an early age while reading various magazines in her family household.
“I loved to read as a child. I always read my father’s Reader’s Digest and Time magazine and the Family Herald. When I was 14, The (Quebec based) Family Herald printed my letter about sharing a bedroom with a sister. I had already been writing poetry. A poem was published in a Vancouver magazine that same year. I was born to be a writer. It came naturally. If I had to sit at a computer and try to think of something to write about, I would not bother. I have to have a passion for a story. One interviewer called my mind very fertile. It’s true. I have so much going on at once that I will never complete all the writing I want to finish,” said Strowbridge.
Much of Strowbridge’s writing involves a fair amount of research, but the writing process begins with inspiration.
“Once I am triggered to write a story or a poem I begin writing. I simply fall into it. If I need to do research, I sometimes spend more time than I need simply because I love researching a subject. When I wrote Ghost of the Southern Cross (short-listed for the NL History and Historic Award), a love story involving my great uncle James Maley who was lost on The Southern Cross, I spent time researching the time, the place and the customs. It was a very dramatic moment for families of the 174 men lost on The Southern Cross when the black-edged letters arrived at the post office – their bodies never found. It was also a poignant moment when James’ bride-to-be accepted the truth that he was not coming home. She unraveled her white wedding gown she had knitted and let it fall at her feet. I wrote Far from Home (also short-listed for the NL History and Historic Award) after Clarissa Dicks asked me to write about her life as a child at the Grenfell Orphanage, where Dr. Grenfell called her a grasshopper because she used crutches. That book is in its seventh printing, The Newfoundland Tongue in its eighth printing,” said Strowbridge.
History plays a critical role in much of Strowbridge’s works, especially Newfoundland history.
“Sometimes a writer needs distance from a place to see it up close. Coming home after living away for almost ten years gave me that perspective. I had more appreciation for Newfoundland’s unique character. Growing up, I did not recognize how unique our way of expressing ourselves is. My book, The Newfoundland Tongue, contains many words and expressions in print for the first time. My memories in The Gift of Christmas take people back to times that were during my childhood and my children’s. There were so many touching and miraculous moments,” said Strowbridge.
While history is at the foundation of her books, Strowbridge does not confine her works to bare facts.
“My more inventive novel is Maiden from the Sea, which has its beginning in France. In it I explore genetic memory, an intriguing concept. I take the reader away from our electronic world and its layers of electronic debris back to the nakedness of nature and the essence of self as Genevieve falls in love with a young Beothuk,” shared Strowbridge.
What drew Strowbridge her towards the characters in Catherine Snow and The Hanged Woman’s Daughter was a sense indignation and justice gone wrong.
“There was no demonstrative and tangible evidence that Catherine (Mandeville) Snow was guilty; no evidence that John Snow was dead. It is wrong to assume that because a person is convicted of a crime that person is guilty. This was a time in history when the collaboration of religion, racial bigotry and politics, power at its apex, became a deadly combination,” said Strowbridge.
Strowbridge actually visited the historical places where the events outlined in her books occurred.
“I grew up living in Port de Grave just down from Bareneed where the Snows first resided and across from Salmon Cove where the Snows later lived. When I was a child, I had heard that a woman had killed her husband on a stagehead. That was all. In the 1980s a Toronto newspaper printed a story about Catherine that was more like pulp fiction than truth. Later I read accounts in newspapers that were incorrect. In one newspaper article a reporter wrote that Catherine sent two of her children away for the night, insinuating that she wanted them out of the way so she could have their father murdered. In fact, her two daughters didn’t stay away for the night. They returned home from attending a wake, the same wake they had attended the night before. So off to the archives I went and read the court transcripts in which I found no evidence of guilt,” said Strowbridge.
Her research also extended outside of the province.
“I visited Ireland to learn about the background of the Mandeville family. In the Waterford Library I found information on the Snow and Mandeville families. I also visited Carrick on Suir to gain insight into the lives of early inhabitants who may have been related to Catherine,” said Strowbridge.
The novel that told the story of Catherine Snow was a bestseller and critically acclaimed, but Strowbridge wasn’t nervous about writing a sequel.
“I knew that I had to create a voice for Bridget Snow. I visualized Bridget as a 17-year-old daughter suffering through her father’s disappearance, her mother accused and jailed. She visited her mother in jail in its deplorable conditions, then returned home to care for younger brothers and her sister Johanna, a baby,” shared Strowbridge.
“After her mother’s hanging, Bridget had to find ways to keep her family together, clad and fed. She knew that her mother had fled her home to reach Brigus so she could obtain papers to protect her children from men who had the power to render them homeless and deal with the macabre truth of her mother’s hanging and the haunting mysteries that remained. Despite Bridget’s efforts, her siblings were scattered and a magistrate came to take the homestead. Bridget was stripped of everything but herself. The Hanged Woman’s Daughter is a testament to triumph over tragedy. There is hope beyond present circumstances. We can never lose faith. It is part of our spirit and soul, hidden sometimes but not lost.”
Strowbridge is currently working on a historical novel that was inspired by an incident concerning the treatment of young women that left her “gasping with indignation.” She is simultaneously work on a number of articles, a book of short stories, six books of poetry, and a memoir.
“There’s never a shortage of material.”