The Silver Darlings by Neil M. Gunn would probably never have come my way had FictionFan earlier this year not suggested a review-along of this book.
I read the blurb and was interested so trundled off to my local bookshop and ordered a copy which fittingly enough, was sent to me from England via sea mail. Disaster struck when my copy took so long to arrive that our original review date had to be delayed. By then I had begun to wonder if the container my book was in had slid off the ship into the sea during a wild storm or if the ship had been delayed in the Suez Canal when the cargo ship Ever Given got stuck and caused a traffic jam.
Eventually my long-awaited copy arrived without even a splash of sea water on it and I have to say, it was worth waiting for.
The story is set in newly-settled coastal communities of Scotland soon after the residents the characters had been evicted from their homes in the Highlands, driven out by landowners who could make more money running sheep than they could from their tenants. Some of the character’s families had immigrated to Canada in the previous years, while those who stayed behind had starved, subsisting on molluscs which they had learned to forage for on the seashore and cliffs. When the story began the men of the community were learning to go to sea to fish with the intention of selling their herring catch to new export businesses set up by their former landlords.
Fishing for herrings was a community event. All of the village’s residents saw the fishing boats off and anxiously watched for them to come back in safely to harbour. Fishing was also the only industry available to the community and right away it employed more than just the fishermen, as once the boats returned the women of the community gutted the herrings for the curers, while flirting with the fishermen. Money then circulated through the community, sustaining everyone.
The action began with a young married couple, Catrine and Tormad, physically fighting one morning because Tormad, against Catrine’s wishes, was leaving their home in Helmsdale to fish at sea in his newly-acquired boat. As a Highlander Catrine believed the sea to be full of unknown dangers, but 24-year old Tormad recognised that their future depended on their adapting to a new life and industry. He wasn’t a thrill-seeker, but he was adventurous and ambitious and as the younger boys in the community watched Tormad walk through their village to his boat, it was obvious that they wanted to grow up to be just like him.
Catrine eventually sent Tormad to sea with a dignified farewell and he and his mates on the boat were hopeful of coming home with a good catch. On the second morning of their fishing expedition it seemed as if their efforts would be rewarded when they found themselves fishing in a school of herring, ignoring an approaching English Navy ship. Disaster struck when the ship pulled up alongside them and despite Tormad fighting valiantly, forcibly took him and his crew on board before sailing away with them in a practice known as ‘press-ganging.’
When Catrine learned that Tormad had been forced into the Navy as a sailor and that he would be unable to return home for up to 20 years she was devastated. Catrine, who was pregnant, made the decision to give her and Tormad’s farm to her elder brother since he was wanting to get married and gave Tormad’s share in the fishing boat to his younger brother before leaving Helmsdale on foot to pay an extended visit to a friend many miles away in Dunster.
Catrine’s story then skipped ahead several years to find her and her young son Finn still living in Dunster with her dear friend Kirsty Mackay, who Finn called Granny Kirsty. Like Helmsdale, Dunster was also a fishing community dependent on the herring trade, and at this point in the story the list of characters expanded to include Roddie Sinclair, a Dunster fisherman with a boat and a crew of his own.
The story moved slowly through Finn’s childhood, taking turns to follow him as he grew up in Dunster, Catrine as she lived a quiet domestic life with Kirsty and Finn, and Roddie, as he fished up and down the coast with his crew for what he called ‘the silver darlings.’ When Finn was old enough he joined Roddie’s crew, had coming-of-age adventures and fell in love, and all the while Roddie was in love with Catrine, who was neither Tormad’s widow nor his wife since his whereabouts remained unknown.
I laughed and cried reading The Silver Darlings. I won’t tell you when and why I cried since that would be a spoiler, but one of the many times I laughed was when Kirsty’s cow got into the corn and her dog, Roy unhelpfully barked and ran around stirring up more trouble, causing Kristy to throw something at him, but since “long experience had taught Roy that anything thrown by a woman would hit him only if he tried to dodge,” Roy obviously stayed still and emerged unscathed.
The story is told fully, slowly and carefully, and includes many, many little details which would never make it into a modern story, but in The Silver Darlings these wonderful inclusions added to my feeling of being part of a life and a community during a time when the world moved more slowly.
It may seem obvious since the story is set during a time when was no internet, phones or mail deliveries, but part of the joy of the story for me was reading the full, unhurried conversations which were held in person. Characters told their stories to groups of listeners who prompted the storyteller to include all of the particulars, from how they were feeling to what they saw and smelled and heard and touched, when the events where taking place and why, and they chastised the storyteller if they felt any detail, no matter how big or small was skipped over or left out.
The language is as descriptive as the character’s narratives, but neither were ever long-winded. The characters weren’t well-educated in a modern sense but they were articulate, unafraid of their emotions and told their stories well. Occasionally they made fools of themselves and at other times they were heroic. At all times they were completely believable and true.
The story and setting may have resonated with me because my father and his family loved to fish. Dad often said that my grandfather’s view of life was that the world was three-quarters ocean and one-quarter land and that people would do well to spend their time accordingly. A family day out for them was often spent fishing at sea or up the river in their boat.
Dad fished all of his life and loved feeding his family and friends with his catch. In later life he usually fished with friends, either at sea or up a river in a boat, or at other times sitting on a chair on a river’s edge or standing on a sandy beach. During summer he went crayfishing off the rocks and in winter, he caught eels in the river. When the moon was right when we lived in a warmer place, he went prawning.
One of my earliest memories was fishing on the side of the river with my grandmother early one morning when I fell asleep and a fish took my rod. I woke up because Nan was screeching, but luckily another fisherman waded out into the river and retrieved my rod, minus the fish.
The Silver Darlings gave me the feeling of having been living in another time and place while I’d been reading. It’s a long time since I’ve felt so emotionally connected to a book and I’m going to miss the characters, Dunster, the sea and the story itself now that I’ve finished it. Many thanks to FictionFan for recommending this book.
You can read FictionFan’s review of The Silver Darlings here:
Sandra from A Corner of Cornwall also took part in the review-along of The Silver Darlings and has made several excellent points which I wish I’d thought of myself. You can read Sandra’s review here: