the moving of the house: the central image in Annie Proulx's The Shipping News

  • The Shipping News
  • Author:  Annie Proulx   (b. 1935)
  • Rank:  #79
  • Publisher:  Charles Scribner’s Sons
  • Published:  1993
  • Pages:  337   (Scribner paperback)
  • First Line:  “Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns.”
  • Last Lines:  “Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat’s blood, mountaintops give off cold fire, forests appear in mid-ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught with the shadow of a hand on its back, that the wind may be imprisoned in a bit of knotted string.  And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.”
  • ML Edition:  none
  • Acclaim:  Pulitzer Prize; National Book Award  –  the only book since 1981 to win both awards
  • Film:  2001  (*** – dir. Lasse Hallstrom)
  • Read:  Summer, 2001

The Novel: “The silence stretched out until he got the book and read the recipe, the memory of the brief month of love when she had leaned in his arms, the hot silk of her slip, flying through his mind like a harried bird.”  This is Quoyle’s memory of his wife, of the early days of the relationship, before any realization that she had no love for him and no love for anything in the world, had even begun to settle into his brain.  Here we are, on only page 15.  This is the kind of life that Quoyle has been living.  No.  Not really living.  Quoyle is the type of person that life happens to.

In this life, in the matter of a couple of days he loses his parents, his wife leaves and sells their children into slavery and she dies in a car wreck.  The kids are saved and his aunt shows up with the parental ashes and suddenly life is happening to Quoyle in a new and different way, so out of New York comes their lives and onto Newfoundland, the family history washing over them as they return to the past to find a future: “The old place of the Quoyles, half ruined, isolated, the walls and doors of it pumiced by stony lives of dead generations.  The aunt felt a hot pang.  Nothing would drive them out a second time.”

That is the ancestral house of the Quoyles, out at Quoyle Point, a house dragged there across the ice.  The image of that movement, of a family dragging the house, became the central point of the book and the cover that so many people identify with.  A group of people so determined to beat the land that they would drag themselves out to the wind-swept rock and attempt to scratch a life out of it.

They do scratch a life, even manage to begin again.  For out in this desolate land, they will find themselves as well a great mix of interesting characters.  They uncover dark secrets about their past, some that the aunt has hidden behind her, but they also find great humor, especially in a scene where a party is thrown for a man who is finally leaving and in the course of the party his boat, which he was planning to leave in, ends up being destroyed.

Then, in the course of all of this, Quoyle begins to live.  And his journey into life is what so many love about this book, from those first few pages of such a pathetic shell of a man to those final few beautiful sentences.

the 2001 Golden Globe nominated film version of Annie Proulx's The Shipping News

The Film: I have never met anyone who has been anything other than completely satisfied with the novel The Shipping News.  And I have never met anyone who has been satisfied with the film version.  Not that it’s bad.  It’s not bad, and at times can be quite good.  But it is definitely not satisfying.

The novel was always fully formed, but because of the nature of the novel, the film only feels like a collection of odd characters and short little parts of their lives.  They don’t seem to leap off the screen the way they leaped off the page.  Part of the problem is the casting of Kevin Spacey.  Roger Ebert hits the nail on the head when he says that Spacey is always capable of playing the smartest man in the room and he’s not as interesting to watch in any other form.  But the others are all great, especially Cate Blanchett, in her small role as Petal, staring away from the others even in the poster, a “bitch in high heels” as she is described by Agnes in the novel and she won critical attention as part of her year in smaller roles (along with The Man Who Cried and the first Lord of the Rings film).

On the plus side, though, many films are remembered primarily for two things: their openings and their endings and this film hits both right on the nail.  The beautiful music comes on with people pulling on a rope, and for thus of who had read the novel, we knew that they would come through and at some point we would see that house moving across the ice.  Then comes the ending, and that beautiful pull-away shot out on the point with the survivors standing around.  So we can leave it with that.  It succeeds there and its other problems can be left in the distance.  For we can leave it with a smile and that is more than most films can give us.