One idea I’ve had for a writing project is to create a narrative around the migration of Nova Scotians to Waipu Cove in 1853. Recently, I discovered this had already been done in 1987 by celebrated New Zealand author, Dame Fiona Kidman, this year’s judge of the NZSA Central Districts short story competition. It was my entry into the competition that prompted me to look into what Kidman had written.
Despite feeling some dismay that my idea had already been explored, I was delighted to download and read The Book of Secrets. The structure of the novel reminded me of The Poisonwood Bible, relating the experiences of three women with their perspectives of a significant dominant male figure in their lives. In The Book of Secrets, these women are the grandmother, mother and daughter impacted by the Reverend Norman McLeod, each connected to the significant settings in his life: Scotland, Nova Scotia and New Zealand.
I first heard of McLeod prior to my leaving Nova Scotia. My father told me about his migration here. The man must have left quite an impact in Pictou County as well. I didn’t think much more about him until I visited Waipu some years ago – stunned at their devotion to things Nova Scotian. The main street of Waipu is called Nova Scotia Drive, the Nova Scotia flag flies in the village and they host an annual Highland Games festival each January, similar to the ones familiar to Antigonish residents.
Norman McLeod, also known as Tormod by his followers, casts a long shadow in this book and challenges me to learn more about this enigmatic historical figure. Regardless of the perception of the man presented by Kidman, which is one of a hard man, even an unstable man, McLeod must have held incredible influence over his flock. Not only did he persuade a band of them to leave their home in Scotland to settle in Nova Scotia, but after years in Pictou County he managed to pull it off again, moving another group, including many from the first, to Australia and finally to Waipu. This is where the journey ended for McLeod, but the descendants of his followers live on here today. In fact, I have a friend I met in Taumarunui who is a descendant from the Nova Scotian settlers of Waipu. I call him “Cousin Dean”.
Although The Book of Secrets is not just about the migrations, but about the journeys, dilemmas and resilience of Isabella, her daughter Annie and her daughter Maria, I was captivated by passages describing the travel and the places with which I am familiar as my two homelands. In one passage, as the Frances Ann leaves Scotland, Kidman illustrates the charisma and sentimentality of McLeod and also touches a nerve for this emigrant:
“As the ship pulled away, McLeod, standing on the deck, broke into the old lament of McCrimmon, and in a moment the voices of everyone on board had joined with him and were soaring back across the water to the watchers on the shore—cha tille cha tille cha tille me tuilleach, return return return we never, in peace nor war return we never, with silver or gold return we never.”
It reminds me of our song, Farewell to Nova Scotia and my own observation that it is a real Scottish tradition to lament lost homelands. I’ve always wondered: Are there songs in Scotland about missing Scotland sung by people who have never left Scotland?
I was excited to read of the migrants’ arrival in Nova Scotia, as if I was arriving back home myself, despite the fact Kidman is describing my homeland centuries before I was born:
“They all turned back to watch the coastline growing larger and clearer until in late morning the ship sailed smoothly into the harbour at Pictou.”
In writing the book, Kidman travelled to Scotland and spent time in Nova Scotia. I appreciated other vivid passages about my original homeland written by this fine New Zealand author:
“So she lay on her back, a little apart from him, and told him of the dark abysses under the Nova Scotian ice, where a person might fall and never be seen again, especially if they ventured forth upon it when the spring thaw was coming; and about the way the moss smelled, coming up for air when the melting was finally over. She spoke of the wild strawberries that grew there in summer, and the sweet maple syrup that was collected under the trees; the way the rocks were worn smooth by the sea, and the way it was a harsh land, but beautiful too.”
Similarly, I anticipated the arrival of the Nova Scotians in New Zealand and Kidman’s prose did not disappoint:
“We knew this was the place for us, for we had seen it from the sea as we approached New Zealand, and it looked like the shores of Nova Scotia. Yet. Now that we are here, it is not really like that at all. It is lush, almost as I think you would imagine the tropics . . . the growth is so thick, there is no snow all year round, although a considerable amount of rain, and things just grow and grow.”
There is a tremendous loneliness in all her female protagonists and what I really appreciated about Kidman’s narrative was that it was difficult to determine how much this loneliness was created by the unsettling and resettling migrations, disconnecting each generation from the previous; or the dominance of, not only MacLeod, but other male figures; or the clash between their strong, independent personalities with the cultures of their times and places.
“It came to her then that she was different from the women who had gone before her. They had been made afraid, and denied choice through circumstances and violation, and what had happened to them had made them turn away from accepting themselves as they were. Nor had she ever made a choice of her own, acting always blindly and without thought.”
The book ends with the birth of Maria’s son who, in ironic contrast with the departed shadow of MacLeod and the ostracism of Maria, provides hope that this family line will finally find some stability in his independence in this new world of New Zealand:
“The generations were getting stronger. This boy had to be Christie’s son, and yet in an odd sort of way it hardly mattered. He didn’t look especially like anyone, except for the pale touch of copper in his skin. She sensed the vitality. He was his own person. A new kind of person, without allegiance to a particular group or race. He would make new choices.”
The Book of Secrets is not the narrative I would have chosen to tell the story of the migration of Waipu. For me, it was exhilarating and poignant to read, but, perhaps thankfully, it did not satisfy the vision I have for writing my own version someday. Watch this space.
Antony Millen is a Nova Scotian living and writing in New Zealand. He was awarded third prize by Dame Fiona Kidman in the 2015 New Zealand Society of Authors Central Districts competition for his short story, Aukati. He is the author of three novels: Redeeming Brother Murrihy, Te Kauhanga and The Chain.