A while ago I had a request to include more Canadian content, so I thought this was the perfect opportunity. Earlier this spring, thanks to the wonders of Netflix, I rented Random Passage, an eight-hour miniseries based on Bernice Morgan's epic novels about the early settlement of Newfoundland. The scenery was breathtaking, the acting first-rate, and the situations depicted both heartwarming and brutally realistic. Most of the actors were new to me, but it was a surprise to see Colm Meaney, who I knew best as transporter chief Miles O'Brien on Star Trek: The Next Generation, cast as the male lead in the role of Thomas Hutchings, a gruff storekeeper with a secret past.
Even given the length of the miniseries (on two DVDs you have to rent separately), the storyline from the novels has been condensed to some degree. The Vincent and Andrews family trees have been simplified, and the producers must have decided that Irish firebrand Mary Bundle made for a better heroine than pensive Lavinia Andrews, who comes across in the film as a bit cold and closed-off, at least at first. The TV series is based on both Random Passage and its sequel, Waiting for Time, and I watched them over about a week. After seeing the video, I felt compelled to read the books once more.
Bernice Morgan's two novels, relating one family's struggles and triumphs in Newfoundland from the early 19th century until the present, were originally written as one book. Not surprisingly, in order to get the fullest appreciation for the characters (and because it ends with a cliffhanger), readers of Random Passage will be compelled to read the sequel.
Random Passage begins as members of the Andrews family are forced to make their way from Weymouth, England, to unknown prospects in the remote, uncivilized, God-forsaken place known as Newfound Land in the early 1800s. There, on the island of Cape Random, the Vincent family introduces them to their hardscrabble way of life. Lavinia Andrews, the pensive seventeen-year-old daughter, records their experiences in her journal.
The story of the Andrews family's settlement is gritty and utterly unromanticized. Only the strong survive, but in this story, even great strength isn't always enough. All characters have unique personalities, from the dreamy Lavinia and her fun-loving brother Ned to the lusty, determined newcomer Mary Bundle and mysterious storekeeper Thomas Hutchings. The dialogue is plain-spoken, rustic, and authentic. The storyline jars at first as Morgan attempts to tell the story from too many different viewpoints, but it soon settles into easy, fascinating reading.
Waiting for Time looks back at the same story from the viewpoint of Mary Bundle, who at seventeen has barely escaped a life of thievery by finding passage on a ship to Newfoundland. Her life spans nearly a hundred years. Events formerly seen through others' eyes in Random Passage are retold from Mary's point of view, and the difference is at times remarkable. Many events hinted at in the earlier book are finally revealed. Mary's tale is introduced through the discoveries of a modern-day Andrews descendant, but these modern bits were for me the least compelling parts of the novel.
My one complaint is that I was left wanting more. I wanted to read of Mary's great-granddaughter Rachel and of the lives of other Andrews and Vincent descendants. With its impressive characterization and unusual setting (for this American reader, anyway), this is far from your average family saga. A worthwhile read for Canadians and non-Canadians alike.
Bernice Morgan's Random Passage and Waiting for Time were originally published by Breakwater Books in Canada. Amazon.ca doesn't show any copies in print, which is kind of hard to believe, as they're modern classics. However, the US edition of the first book, retitled Cape Random, is available from Shambhala at $16.95. Parts of this review appeared originally in a different form in the Historical Novels Review.