July 20, 2020

Footsteps in Bay de Verde: A mysterious tale

Written by Charis Cotter
Illustrated by Jenny Dwyer
Running the Goat, Books & Broadsides
44 pp.
All ages
May 2020

From the extraordinary teller of ghost stories, Charis Cotter, comes another haunting tale of old Newfoundland from a time when listening to adults talk was entertainment for children and mysterious tales weren't from the imagination alone.
From Footsteps in Bay de Verde: A mysterious tale by Charis Cotter, illus. by Jenny Dwyer
An hour past their bedtime, children John, Bridie and Theresa–8, 6 and 4 respectively–sit squished on a daybed with others, trying to stay invisible to the adults who visited, sharing news of the fishing, the union, and the weather. They also speak of the health of Mother's cousin, Jim Keye, ever known as Poor Keye, who'd gone to hospital in St. John's. Poor Keye who was already afflicted with cataracts and a bad leg that gave him a recognizable "step–shuffle–thump" footstep was a favourite of Birdie's for his jokes and candy in his pockets.
From Footsteps in Bay de Verde: A mysterious tale by Charis Cotter, illus. by Jenny Dwyer
Just as Mr. Fleming begins his story about Billy Cotter going stark raving made one night, "screaming bloody and foaming around the mouth," the front door crashes open with a bang and they all hear the familiar shambling footsteps coming down the hall. As they wait for the returned Poor Keye, Mr. Fleming continues his story. They all hear the footsteps but no one comes in. Bridie's mother even takes the lamp and goes to check on him, sure that he'd lost his way because of his cataracts.
There was a moment of silence that seemed to fill the whole house. Bridie could feel her heart thumping under her sweater. The wind was picking up now, rattling the windows furiously.
     Suddenly there was a loud crash from the back kitchen, and the sound of breaking glass.
When their mother returns without Jim and sees her children still up at quarter past nine, she shuffles them off to bed, leaving a candle for the three children who huddle in their bed in darkness of their room.
From Footsteps in Bay de Verde: A mysterious tale by Charis Cotter, illus. by Jenny Dwyer
But it's in the brightness of the next morning that brings the scariest of news when a telegram arrives from St. John's that confirms that last night's visit was not limited to those seen in the kitchen.

Charis Cotter is a ghost storyteller. From her award-winning The Swallow to her The Ferryland Visitor, Charis Cotter, who lives by the sea in Western Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, paints wildly spooky stories from the mundane. It’s the wind and the rain and a road or a picture. It's friends gathering to chat and a soul far away and right at hand. She tells it as it was, placing the reader in a house pounded by a wind, chilled and dark by weather and something else. From little Theresa whimpering to Mr. Brady spitting out his chewing tobacco to the wind trying to get in, Footsteps in Bay de Verde recreates a story told to Charis Cotter by Brian Walsh, a Newfoundland storyteller himself, of a story his mother experienced in the 1920s and makes us believe what the characters saw and heard.
"It could've been the wind."
"Well, if it was, it's the first time I've ever heard the wind make footsteps."
This is Newfoundlander Jenny Dwyer's first picture book and she gives powerful imagery to Charis Cotter's words. That wind, the cold, the dark and the haunting atmosphere of Bridie's family home on that night is delivered with a starkness and an authority. Through her limited palette of cool blues, greys and black, with just the mere touch of red–in a ribbon, on a candy, a stamp on a telegram–Jenny Dwyer upholds the eeriness of the night and the revelation of the next morning. Even on this hot summer day as I review this story, I feel that chill and the mysteriousness of something experienced but unexplained.

For another haunting picture book, set in old Newfoundland, Footsteps in Bay de Verde makes the real just a little bit dark and a whole lot mysterious.

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