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The Cowb’ys

AN-CowbysHis Majesty’s New World only came together as a series when I realized it could include Newfoundlanders. It’s been a few years since I explained this, but it bears repeating: as an MA student, I’d done all sorts of research that helped inform the alternate history of the series. However, the intricacies of a world in which Britain and the United States started colonizing another planet in 1881, and skipped the First World War in 1914, would mean nothing (to non-historians) if there weren’t good people involved in the resulting adventure.

Being able to bring Newfoundlanders to another planet in 1919? That made it work. And invoking the name of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment was essential, because it allowed me to use science fiction to give modern readers a glimpse of the realities of that period — a time most of us know little about — without it seeming like a history lesson. If you happen to learn about the sorts of men who went to the trenches on the Western Front because you read about the RNR fighting savages? Works for me.

Of course, the RNR in His Majesty’s New World is wholly fictional — an homage to the original, meant in no way to tarnish or abuse the memory of the men who marched to the Western Front. Instead of basing our fictional characters on real historical people, I drew on people I knew — people I grew up with — to make sure it is an authentically Newfoundland formation. Granted, some Newfoundland readers think it’s a bit too good — that everyone in the whole regiment is suspiciously ‘best kind’ (as we say), but that’s my conceit as an author. I like hanging around with good people, especially when what they’re about to face is almost certain to destroy the world(s). And besides, after everything they’ve been through together, I think those b’ys have earned the right to be good to each other.

I also don’t mind that those b’ys are the first Newfoundlanders many readers will ever have encountered.

I’ve been noticing something interesting in our sales reports of late: a huge number of American readers are joining His Majesty’s New World. Obviously, I’m delighted that they’re now marching with the b’ys — the fact that Smith, an American drifter, is so vital to the series is indicative of how important I believe the Canadian-Newfoundland-American relationship is. We’re all family, and I don’t think we say that enough.

But if you’re an American reader who’s never met a Newfoundlander, I wonder how we must sound to you? Perhaps the same way Texicans from the Alamo sound to us outsiders: like slightly-larger-than-life (and possibly insane) people who’d be good to know?

Well, if you want a good sense of what Newfoundlanders are really like, there’s a show for you to track down. Many people know The Deadliest Catch; the Discovery Channel here in Canada realized it had access to a similar cast of characters. In Cold Water Cowboys (I like to say Cowb’ys because I’m stupid), you get a first hand look at how some modern Newfoundland fishermen live and work.

Now, not all Newfoundlanders work on the sea — indeed, these days, too few get the chance. I certainly have never worked on a fishing boat, and were I to try, I expect I’d be the guy who somehow allowed the fish to stage a coup, and take over (Planet of the Turbots?). But fishing has been in the bones of Newfoundland society since before the thirteen American colonies were even founded. We’ve been doing it since the 1500s, so at least a little bit of the fishing life is baked into every aspect of the Rock’s culture.

And hard though it is, it’s a good life. It’s one that teaches you that you that nothing is certain, but that if you’re willing to go out — to cross the horizon — you might find whatever you’re looking for. It teaches you to overcome fear, to chase your dreams, and to work yourself ragged in the process. It teaches you to love your days alive, because they’ll be too few, and to look after each other, because even if you don’t like the b’y next to you, the two of you are in it together. You can go at each other all day long, but if the sea comes for one of you, it’ll discover that it has to tangle with both of you.

I’ve said before that being a Newfoundlander is like being a member of the crew of a giant ship made of rock. I think being from many places on the Atlantic is probably similar. It shapes the way you see the world. It informs how you treat other people. It keeps you moving.

If you told me that, effective tomorrow, I’d never be able to move again — that where I stood would be where I spent the rest of my life — I’d be headed to the airport before you could finish the sentence. Of course I’d be on the next flight to Newfoundland — and most Newfoundlanders, I believe, would be on the plane with me. It’d be a cheerful flight.

But here’s the thing about all of us: whatever accents we do or don’t have (I sound like such a mainlander), whatever our trade or skill (me: none), whatever corner of the province we hail from (I’m a Townie who loves Woody Point), none of us want to believe we’ll face a day when you can’t move again. As these cowb’ys go where the fish are, the rest of us will always go where we can be of some use. And then, if fate allows, we’ll make our way back to home port.

Most of the time, there are only two things that can stop that ability to get home: weather and health. Everything else can be managed. So don’t be surprised if, when you hear two Newfoundlanders catching up, those two subjects monopolize the conversation. How are you? How’s the family? How’s everyone’s health? How’s the weather been? It’s not just small talk, it’s asking after your crewmates — hoping that they still possess the great power all Newfoundlanders long for: that ability to find the mother lode, and get home for dinner.

That desire beats in my heart, anyway. And because of me, it also guides the b’ys of the Newfoundland Regiment in His Majesty’s New World. They’ve been away for years — to a different planet, even — but Sergeant Dunphy will always carry his bag of beach rocks, and every man who follows the Wall wishes for one place: home.

So to all the new readers from abroad who are discovering the new world alongside Tom Waller, Jimmy Devlin, Skipper Miller and the b’ys: if you want to see real Newfoundlanders, track down Cold Water Cowboys. Hopefully, you’ll feel like you already know a little bit about the men and women you’ll meet… though, depending on where you’re from, you’ll really need the subtitles. Oh, and sorry for all the swearing.

Cold Water Cowboys airs on Discovery Canada, Tuesday nights at 10:00 EST. From what I understand, viewers outside Canada can look out for it on National Geographic International and (appropriately enough) the Weather Channel in the U.S. Like they always say… check your local listings!