The Chronicle Herald Review - Been in the Storm So Long

Been in the Storm So Long: Fast, dangerous living in New Orleans
Reviewed by: Rosalie Osmond

This is an ambitious novel, spanning a lifetime and the distance from a small Nova Scotian fishing village to New Orleans. Within this arena, four characters — three men and one woman — live out their destinies.

Set in the second half of the 19th century, the book tells the story of John Healy, the son of Irish immigrants who settle in a small coastal community largely inhabited by descendents of French immigrants. John loves the sea and adventure in equal measure and, despite his love for an Acadian girl, Odette, sets sail on a whaling boat. Here he commits his first misdemeanor, smuggling liquor on board the ship, and from this one transgression all the subsequent hardships and disasters of his life seem to flow. Flogged and smuggled off the whaler by a friend, he is left vulnerable to all the vices of New Orleans.

The description of both the fishing village and New Orleans is rich and evocative. I’m not certain whether the author intends to make a deliberate moral contrast between the relatively “safe” Nova Scotian environment and the evils of the southern city surrounded by swamp, but it is implicitly there. His best friend from Nova Scotia, Daniel, sets out to free him, but only becomes embroiled himself in the world of thievery and murder that seems to flourish in the south.

There is no shortage of incidents in the novel, and equally no shortage of suspense. Once one has moved past the first 30 or so pages, one is hooked; finishing the book is a necessity.

John (apparently) returns from the dead not once but twice. (What would Lady Bracknell have to say about that?) Shootings, both accidental and deliberate, dot the pages. A child drowns, and the ramifications of this define the action of the last half of the novel.

The writing shows great attention to form and detail. Scenes are crafted as carefully as the duck decoys that John fashions. Four brief episodes in the prelude introduce, enigmatically, the four main characters, and elements of these scenes thread themselves throughout the novel. The signal fire that Odette lights on the hill is transformed and magnified into the blaze that the arsonist, Paul, sets in New Orleans. Music is another motif that threads itself through the novel, from the young Odette, who plays her violin on the rocky hillsides overlooking the sea, to Paul, the New Orleans luthier, whose craft shows John the way back to a meaningful life.

Nevertheless, I came away from the novel feeling rather unsatisfied. I think that dissatisfaction has something to do with the characters themselves and the extent to which we are allowed to inhabit their internal worlds. I found it particularly strange that we are given no explanation as to why John, a “good boy” as his father calls him, agreed in the first place to stow liquor on the whaling boat. His other acts of felony spring in large part from the desperation of his situation after he has done this, but in this initial act there is no apparent compulsion. Did he agonize over it? Was it just a bit of mischief, the consequences of which he never imagined? Did he subsequently even recognize that everything else that happened to him (with the exception of the loss of his son) sprang from this one action?

None of the characters is much given to introspection, with the exception of Daniel at the end of his life and John in the postlude. Perhaps I am looking for something the novel never set out to provide, but I did find that these people, for the most part, allow life to “happen” to them. And without any sense of internal necessity, some elements of the plot seem almost coincidences too far. John has an unfortunate propensity not to notice what is happening right in front of him when he is in a boat — whether it is his son falling out of it into the sea or his friend dumping his gun into the water.

And while the book and the people in it run the gamut of emotions — fear, love, grief, horror — I did not find it wholly satisfying in a psychological sense.

With these reservations, it is an accomplished work of fiction and Terry Jordan is a skilled and experienced writer. He is clearly familiar with the minutia of the 19th century life he describes in both Nova Scotia and New Orleans.

There is no lack of action and interest. A good read, if not a wholly satisfying one.

Rosalie Osmond is a writer and lecturer who lives in Lunenburg

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