David Adams Richards
- Why Should We Read and Study Richards?
- Literature & Analysis
- from Nights Below Station Street
- Analysis of Nights Below Station Street
- Questions and Considerations for Reflection
- Strategies for Teachers
- Further Reading
David Adams Richards is generally considered to be New Brunswick’s leading writer of English-language fiction of his generation. He was born in Newcastle, NB in 1950 into a family that owned the town’s movie houses. Cast to the sidelines as an observer because of a birth accident, he grew up watching others participate in the activities that he loved. That vantage point gave him an early affinity for the underdog and, when coupled with his upbringing in Catholicism and education at St. Thomas University, special insight into class, social justice, and personal accountability. Those issues, and the big questions they raise, are evident in his body of work. His first substantial publication was the novel The Coming of Winter, released in 1974. There followed numerous works of fiction and non-fiction, mostly novels, each sharing an unnamed but recognizable Miramichi setting and many linked by recurring characters who recede or gain prominence depending on the work. His imagined world becomes a complex microcosm that critics have compared to that of Honoré de Balzac and William Faulkner, both writers central to his apprenticeship. Richards has won numerous literary awards and his work has been translated into several languages.
For a much more detailed biography of Richards, see his New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.
Why Should We Read and Study Richards?
- Like Alden Nowlan and Raymond Fraser, both of whom were important influences on his literary development, Richards gravitates to a subject matter that some critics and readers, and indeed some Miramichiers, take exception to. His work doesn’t cast New Brunswick as the place of pure and innocent folk working contentedly at traditional pursuits, as the tourist ads declare, but as a place of inequity, gamesmanship, and the social violence that accrues from limited and stifled opportunity. His fictional world is thus a post-federalist landscape of consequence in which the dominant stereotypes of crudity, apathy, and backwardness are shown not to be inherent in the New Brunswick character but rather imposed on character by conditions and circumstances that rob people of their dignities. Once that social operation is revealed, Richards proceeds to show his characters in their moments of triumph, moments when they rise above expectation to act slightly braver, or kinder, or more selflessly than even they thought possible. To read Richards’ work is to be reminded of the vast gulf between personal action and social assumption, and thus to be buoyed by the human capacity to exceed the limitations placed on it. In this sense, Richards’ fiction addresses those who author and circulate the stereotypes that delimit New Brunswickers.
- Richards is also especially skilled at creating character and place. Readers will instantly recognize his characters as New Brunswickers and his setting as the Miramichi. His intense powers of observation allow this, and to study Richards carefully is to realize that what he is describing is actually the experience, feel, and attitudes of place through selective material detail. Much like Raymond Fraser, his interest is to evoke mood and tonal landscape, which, together, usher us into his experience of place. That is why his imagined world is recognizable and unique. For apprenticing creative writers, Richards’ techniques are worth studying carefully.
Literature & Analysis
from Nights Below Station Street
It was the Christmas of 1972. A spruce tree was decorated in the corner of their living room against the pine-board wall. There was a smell of evening. Their house was below Station Street and down beyond the hospital.
Adele said she never got anything. She went to bed before Midnight Mass, and then on Christmas morning got into a fight with her father and refused to open any of her presents, and instead sat on the stairs in her housecoat complaining about bad nerves and upsetting feelings.
Joe was not drinking for the first Christmas in years. But Adele said that he would probably ruin it some other way, or in some other fashion. She was waiting for him to go for the bottle any second. He was a large heavy-set man, with a clumsy stride. He went out onto the street, a street that overlooked the river, near the rocks; and while Rita watched from an upstairs window, leaning back as if frightened that he’d see her. He paced back and forth. And there was a whistle from the mill.
Rita liked to drink, but because Joe was not drinking she only had a few glasses of wine. And she was nervous too. She did not know why her husband was staying sober. But she was afraid that she was going to do something or say something to cause him to drink. She did not know what she would do or say - only she was sure she would. The last time he got drunk he had lit his pants on fire, falling asleep on the couch with a cigarette burning. Adele had woken up and, screaming, had run to the bathtub to get a plastic bucket filled with water. But she did not throw it on his pants. Instead she threw it at him, and it hit him in the face. This happened two months ago, on Hallowe’en.
Adele was already bored and depressed. She wanted to go back to school. When they brought her her presents, with her little sister Milly begging her to open them, she kicked at them with her toes, which she was busy painting.
Everyone else got a telephone in their room and she had been hinting to Rita to get her a telephone. But Rita had gypped her. Adele screeched at the television for getting blurry and then went into her room. Even the music from the radio depressed her at this moment.
Adele would ignore Joe as she went about the house, and Joe would take out a cigarette and light it as she went by, nodding to her now and then. Once when he nodded to her she flew into him again and said that yes she was quite familiar with him, she already knew who he was. Then she smirked. And then she turned on the balls of her feet and marched off triumphantly upstairs.
Ralphie came to the house and brought Adele her presents; he was tall with red hair. He had started going with her that fall, when she was fifteen, and she already had pictures of him in the house, two in her bedroom, one in the living room, and one more on the small dark paint-
chipped commode in the bathroom, which she wouldn’t allow anyone to touch.
He stood at the door in a brand new pair of boots. His boots looked ridiculously new to her and he nodded seriously at whatever Joe or Rita said.
The first time Ralphie got to talk to Joe (this was while Joe was still drinking), Adele had spoken in a rush: “This is Joe – here - he’s my father - my mother’s out earning our keep selling Amway.” Then she turned to him as Joe came forward to shake his hand. Ralphie had been hearing of Joe Walsh since he had been a little boy. He had heard that he hurt his back, and though he could still be called strong, and could still be capable of tremendous strength, he was acting at about half of what he had once been. Everyone in town had told him this also.
“We want to be alone, Joe - go in the other room,” she said and then she began to walk about the kitchen table wiping it up.
“I’m sorry to hear your dad died,” Joe said to Ralphie.
“Yes - well, go in the other room, Joe,” Adele said again, blushing.
Joe smiled slightly and he went into the other room. But as soon as he did, Adele had nothing more to say, became absolutely silent, and stared at the dock. Every time Ralphie spoke she would nod and look up at the clock, as if to say: “God this visit sure is taking a long time.”
Then Joe came out a few minutes later with some pictures in his hand. “Here,” he said to Ralphie, “I have some pictures I’d like you to see of my camp at Brookwall.”
“Well, he doesn’t want to see them,” Adele said, still looking up at the clock. When Joe went to hand them to Ralphie, Adele became so upset, so angry that she grabbed the pictures out of his hand and they fell and scattered over the floor.
“There,” she said. “Well, now look at what you’ve done and you’ve always done things just like that-”
But then she jumped off the seat and began to crawl about the floor. Joe stood in his sock feet looking down at her. And then her temper flared:
“You haven’t done any exercise for your back but then Wally Johnston wants you to lift an engine and you’re over at the house at midnight covered in shit and wrestling with a goddamn truck engine - ha ha - ha ha - ha ha ha, your old back might just fall off some day. And then Mom will have to keep shitty diapers for the rest of her life - but you won’t mind that because it will give you a chance to play pinball - which is all you seem to want to play lately.”
Ralphie was standing against the kitchen sink with his eyes lowered.
“Don’t be rude,” Joe stammered.
“Ha,” Adele said flaring up. “Rude - why don’t ya slap my cheeks off or stick a fork in my bum like ya did when ya were drunk. If it weren’t fer Mom we’d all be on the welfare - the whole herd of us would be downtown in the office - like Jesus Frenchmen.”
“I might slap ya,” Joe said. He looked worried and curiously at Ralphie for a moment - as if at that moment he had no idea what Ralphie was doing in the house or why he was listening to the conversation.
“‘Well - and even these pictures Mom don’t want you to maul and put a gross amount of fingerprints all over - and I don’t care,” she finished up, screaming.
Then suddenly she stood, handed the pictures to him, and smirked. She had two big barrettes in her hair, both of butterflies, which looked as if they had just lighted there and were about to carry her away.
Then she sat down again and as soon as Joe went out of the room she hauled a cigarette out of the top pocket of her blouse and got Ralphie to light it.
She smoked her cigarette quickly with jerking movements of her thin right hand, snapping gum, and glancing towards the other room to see if he was coming back out.
“Joe’s a big stupid drunk,” she said. “Too bad, but that’s the way it is - I never mention er as you can see - but it looks pretty grim. As far as I’m concerned, it looks pretty grim. How grim do you think it is, Ralphie?”
“I’m not real sure,” Ralphie said.
“Pretty fucking grim around this place,” Adele said, her mouth twisted unnaturally suddenly. “And I’m not the kind a girl to swear.”
Then she smiled, butted her cigarette, and blinked quickly as if her eyelashes were stuck.
Adele now led Ralphie about the house. As they moved from the kitchen to the living room, she held onto his hand and looked angrily at everyone, especially at her little sister Milly, who had run over to him as soon as he came into the house - as she did with every new person that came in.
Later, when he got up to go, Adele led him to the door and looked at everyone, with her hair in a small net and her slippers sliding on the floor, with the same look of recrimination. Her eyes were large and blue. For some reason the whole time he was there these eyes stared about at everyone in disappointment.
Trying not to be in her way, her mother stayed in the kitchen.
But Ralphie’s boots caused Adele to fly off the handle. Why hadn’t her mother thought to bring them in out from the porch. She accused Rita of leaving them in the porch just because they were Ralphie’s, and if they had been anybody else’s it was certain they would have been brought in where it was warm. Her whole façade of acting grown up when Ralphie was there was lost, and she stormed off to her room, hitting Milly on the head as she went by.
Rita told Ralphie to come back the next day, and told Adele to stop punching Milly, and roared at Milly when she went to bite Adele on the leg.
Ralphie went and stared back at them from the sidewalk, which was no more than a track in the half blotted-out snowbanks. Snow fell against his red hair as he stood there.
“I don’t care.” Adele yelled. “I can’t have one friend in this here house ever in my whole life without someone trying to do something - and not one of ya take that inta consideration.”
On Boxing Day, Adele walked about in her leotards, and Rita had to tell her a dozen times to get dressed because Ralphie was coming to pick her up for supper at his house, and she shouldn’t be walking about half naked. Rita stood by the sink, with her arms hanging at her sides, and the washing machine going again.
When Ralphie did come she showed him her presents, and at everything she showed him, she said:
“This here isn’t nothing compared to what I got last year.” Or, “This is from Myhrra - she tries hard, but she never gets me anything I want. She’s divorced, and just lives over there.”
When Adele was showing Ralphie her gifts, Joe came into the room for a second and stood looking at them.
“And Joe got me a lot of stuff that ain’t here yet,” Adele said.
Joe was walking about with a cane because of his leg. Or was it his back. No one was quite sure. They were only sure that something was the matter, but as yet they had not found out exactly what. And yet today he wouldn’t admit that his leg was sore. He had also picked up his first chip at AA - that is, his one-month chip - but he would not tell anyone, even Rita, that he was going. So none of his family knew why he was staying sober this Christmas, and everyone was on pins and needles, sure that at any moment a taxi would come up to the door with a load of booze.
Joe had always tried to get Adele the best present he could, and yet never seemed to have the money to do it. This year again he was planning to buy her something special, but when it came time to buy it, he only had fifteen dollars on him.
She took Ralphie about the tree and showed him the bulbs she had placed on it.
As she took him about the tree she said: “Milly put these ones here on - all in a mess - and I was coaxed to put this one on and this here one here. I like putting on the higher up ones.”
“And who put on that one up there?” Ralphie asked.
“He did,” Adele answered.
“Him as all.”
“You mean your dad.”
“Of course him. He did, yes,” Adele said. Then she paused and breathed through her nose, her lips went as thin as a chalk line.
“Him - he did - him!”
* * *
The winter and then the summer months passed, and fall came.
Myhrra called Joe at six o’clock one morning, when it was still dark, and told him that she knew he was asleep but that something was broken in her car. The air smelled cool again. The street outside was broken up. The sky was still filled with pulp and smoke and down below on the river a buoy light winked, saying I am not just any light but a light from a pont-shaped river buoy.
Joe, pulling on his pants and shirt, and fastening his large belt, coughed and lit a cigarette. Through his upstairs window he could smell frost, and he could see the kitchen light on in Myhrra’s trailer above the dark gravel lot which he could not see in the summer but now the leaves were going again. Rita slept. He stepped over her clothes and closed the bedroom door.
When Joe arrived at the trailer, Myhrra was outside and snow fell against the pulp-field in back of them. She wore her heavy coat over her housecoat. She sneezed and rubbed her eyes.
“Joe,” she asked him, “you’ve been in jail, haven’t you?”
“A few times,” Joe said.
“What’s this jail business like?”
“Well, I was in jail for a while for breaking a window,” Joe said. “After the cops came to the house - I hit one.”
“Oh,” Myhrra said. “What happened there, Joe?”
“Nothing,” Joe said. “Rita was going to leave me. I was in a big scrape at the house. The cops took me to jail for my own good, I guess. I didn’t mind er except when Delly came to see me.”
Joe remembered that whole incident. It was the time he threw a chair, and it stuck into the wall at the back of the kitchen. The cops came, and after he hit one, they put the cuffs on him, and he snapped them off. The young female cop, Judy Dennifer, took her cuffs and put them on him, and he snapped them off also. The whole time he kept thinking: If Rita wants me to go with them, I’ll go.
It was in summer. There were bags of garbage in the porch, and a lot of the house was being redone. There was paint on his hands and in his hair. He had tried not to get drunk the night before but hadn’t managed to stay sober.
Then all the cops gathered about him and took him out. Everyone was on the street. Rita was crying. He saw a vindictive look on Judy Dennifer’s face. He smiled at her, and then looked at the ground.
“Oh,” Myhrra was saying, “pretty bad way to go, Joe, with Rita and the kids there....”
Joe nodded. He smiled, and blinked. And suddenly his big face looked confused.
Myhrra sniffed and looked about and there was wind against her eyes.
“Are we all crazy?”
“The whole kit-and-caboodle of us.”
“I don’t know,” Joe said quietly, and lifted up the hood.
Far away a mill whistle blew in the air, and far away a dog barked - and there was the faint rattle of a truck as it passed by.
Joe looked at her and smiled. He could see her bra under her open coat, and when she smiled he could see the scar above her top lip.
“Cub Master said that Byron robbed the money from the troops.”
“The troops,” Joe said.
“The cub troops’ money. They were raising money, had a hundred dollars, but now - ” here she stammered - “money is missing, and Byron was blamed.”
“Well, that’s too bad,” Joe said.
“Sure, because he needs someone to blame it on - and it mayswell be Byron, because I’m a woman alone!” Myhrra said. She looked in at the engine as she spoke.
“Ya, that’s always the way,” Joe said.
“Are you drinking yet, Joe?” Myhrra said intently, inspecting the carburetor.
“No,” Joe said.
“Oh no you’re not - of course you aren’t - I wish I could quit.”
“Oh,” Joe said, surprised. He knew Myhrra didn’t drink.
“Yes,” Myhrra said. “I’m a drunk,” she said, yawning. Myhrra seemed to be everything anyone else was. A snowflake came down in the cold air and landed somewhere. One of her thumbs was blistered and had a Band-Aid around it. The dog barked again.
“Byron is smart,” Myhrra said. “As ambidextrous as hell, too. Is Milly passing? Or is she flunking out like she did in kindergarten?”
Joe slapped her hand so she would take it out of the way.
“She’s doing fine,” Joe said. Actually he didn’t know. After this he became embarrassed, and there was a long silence while he tried to think of something to say.
“You should take care of Rita, Joe,” Myhrra said, as if she had worked herself up into being sad suddenly, just as she worked herself up to be concerned when she carried those month-old magazines down the corridors of the hospital.
Joe nodded. His old canvas coat seemed to crinkle as he worked. The ice in the ditch had the same look as curdled milk, with some weeds sticking up out of it.
“Yes. She’s had a hell of a time. When she was young she did floors for people,” Myhrra said. “I mean, she still does, too. But this was down river. I used to have to stop people from stepping over her while she worked. I can vouch for that.”
Then Myhrra told the story about how she protected Rita, and how Rita always looked up to her. It was always the same story, and she always seemed to tell no one else but Joe this story.
“Anyways,” Myhrra said, “it would have been just terrible if she left you, Joe - when you were at your worst. Like a maniac.”
Joe said nothing to this but nodded again.
He cleaned the battery posts off and reattached the cables and tightened them.
“Were you in the navy or army, Joe?”
“Was it exciting?”
“And that’s where you got the tattoos?” Myhrra said.
“That’s it,” Joe said.
“Well, I usually hate men with tattoos, Joe - but I make an exception for you.”
Myhrra then seemed to not know what else to say. Daylight was coming just as it had come years ago. It smelled of ice in your lungs. Daylight flashed against the naked alders, warmed the side of the bank, and cast light on the dark below them, and Myhrra stood in an old pair of sneakers that were stiff and upturned at the toes.
“I hate hippies, Joe - don’t you?” she said.
“Hate - hippies?” She leaned against the side of the car as he worked, and looked sideways at him, her hair falling over her face.
“I don’t know any hippies.”
“Well, that Ralphie character - and his sister Vera - who’s a real Beatnik, I heard.” She paused. “Thelma Pillar’s children.”
“Oh,” Joe said, “I never considered Ralphie a hippie.”
“Well, perhaps he isn’t,” Myhrra said. “I just know a lot of girls that Mike’s been hanging about town with that look like hippies. Split ends forever.” Then she smiled sadly again, as if to herself, and stepped away quickly when Joe closed the hood of the car.
Ralphie, like his sister Vera a few years before, belonged to the town without being a part of it, knew all about it without people knowing him, and went about as an outsider through no one else’s fault.
He was tall and thin with red hair and delicate features. Though he was tall he weighed only a hundred and twenty seven pounds. He had gone to university for a while, and then to technical school. But then his father had taken sick. When he was visiting him in the hospital the pressure was on to do something. His father would ask him to make a stab at something, for his mother’s sake. And his mother would tell him he must do something for his father who was sick. His mother was elitist and domineering. For a long while she had never been seen anywhere except at church. Neighbours would not see her all winter long because she always kept to herself. Her house would look cold and solitary amongst the other houses.
The problem was that Ralphie did not know what to do. His marks in chemistry and calculus were the highest in the province in high school, and at university he always made out with the least effort.
When his father was sick he would visit him at the hospital. It was at this point that his mother and he felt as if they weren’t doing the right things, because they didn’t know what to do. He would shovel the walk for his mother to get out to the hospital at night.
Every evening when Ralphie got to the hospital, Myhrra would be in the room before him. She had become a sort of friend to his father during the last few weeks of his life, and wouldn’t leave him for a moment. His father could only speak in a whisper. He was dying of bone cancer. And sometimes when the nurses moved the sheets from under him, or lifted him, they would crack a bone in his shoulder, or in his arm. It had been a progressive deterioration of his bone structure for six years. And everything seemed to have been spearheaded toward nothing else but this moment.
They would go into the room, and Myhrra, sitting there, would instruct them on what had been happening.
“His fingers are all yellow tonight. And his toes - his big toe broke again - and he was calling for someone named Danny?”
“That’s his brother,” Ralphie said.
“Oh, what does he do now?”
“He’s an optometrist,” Ralphie said.
“An optometrist,” Myhrra said. “Well, isn’t that something.” Then she would look at Ralphie as if he was bragging.
She would stare at his mother, and then begin to read, her lips moving softly.
“Who is that person?” Thelma asked once.
“She’s just trying to be kind,” Ralphie said. Whether he was in a hospital or not, Ralphie was always the same. His teeth were large, but seemed appropriate to his face. He seemed to be always smiling.
Sometimes Thelma would not go to the hospital if she thought Myhrra was going to be there. But she refused to tell Myhrra to leave, and Myhrra was determined to stay. So all through Mr. Pillar’s last days, Myhrra - who had not known the family very well over the years - knew all the gruesome and hideous details of his illness, along with her son Byron.
But then, at the very last, just when Ralphie’s father was expecting her to come, she had an argument with Thelma over some telephone call concerning treatment in Montreal. Myhrra had talked Mr. Pillar into asking to go to Montreal where she said they would be able to save him. Mr. Pillar got this in his mind, that he could be saved only in Montreal. Finally Thelma, along with the doctors, had to tell him that there was no possible treatment in Montreal. Because of this, Myhrra took no further interest in either of them, and went to another ward. Mr. Pillar would call her name, and look peevishly angry with Thelma, and refuse to take her hand because she had sent Myhrra away and had not sent him to Montreal. He would lie in bed, tears running down his face as they sat beside him.
After his father’s death, Ralphie missed him and seemed to cling to his father’s possessions - his coat that he wore, a leather flask for drinking, with a picture of the Bluenose on it. And a certain scent of the streets, at a certain time of day, and sometimes the courthouse with its iron railing and worn steps, covered in new snow with pink dying light through the windows, made him sad.
Snow came down on the streets, the buildings, the pits and props in the fields. And he and Ivan Basterache travelled about together, he drinking out of the flask and imitating others as much as possible, sometimes wearing his father’s heavy winter coat, and a small blue toque. Ralphie suddenly had this affinity for Ireland, and everything about him had to be Irish. He sang Irish rebel songs and drank stout, and proclaimed loudly that he was holding the memory of his father sacred by being Irish. This idea that he was Irish, and that they came over to Canada from Ireland became paramount with him, wearing the old winter coat, and having the mischievous grin.
Although Ralphie already believed that everything in the world, everyone and everything, happened exactly the way that it was supposed to, and that once something did happen, no matter how preposterous it was at first, it was meant to happen and was therefore absolutely natural, he still felt that Adele and he only became boyfriend and girlfriend because no one else seemed to think very much of them. Neither of them knew very much about how to act with these other more special and gifted people - gifted in the way people who assume they are doing all the right things - that is, socially gifted. So he and Adele ended up together. He learned that her father was a drunk and her mother was the woman who had taken care of him when he was a little boy.
Adele’s body was so tiny and so skinny that perhaps he and she were more of a match than most people. Another thing that he discovered at this time - both of them were frightened of music. That is, they would go out of their way to miss a dance, or to stay away from a concert. Adele, because she thought there would be liquor there, and she hated it, and Ralphie, because he had secret fears about bullies on the dance floor since he had been beaten up.
Adele and he would stay home from the dances, or go to the movies together.
At times he would convince Adele to sneak in a bottle for him in her purse, which made them both pretend they were proud and dangerous. And it probably made Adele feel she was fitting in even though she did not drink herself. Adele would often boo the main feature so loudly that he would have to put his hand over her mouth. Adele also ate her mitts. She would sit in a movie chewing holes in the thumbs and he couldn’t get her to stop doing it, so one day before they went to a movie, he put pepper on the thumbs of her two mitts, and after he did this she said she would never be able to really trust him.
Sometimes Ralphie earned some money by running the projectors for the night. He made changeovers and spliced reels much better than the regular projectionist, who always found something wrong with the machines after Ralphie left. This happened about twice a month, Ralphie smelling of solder, wearing rubber boots and khaki jeans, with four extra puncture holes in his belt and his hands covered with grease, and Adele sitting on a stool, kicking her feet against the tins of film.
Some time after his father’s death, Ralphie took an apartment, even though his mother didn’t want him to and demanded he stay with her. After two or three months, other people his age heard that someone had rented an apartment, and most of them came in and out of the apartment any time they wanted. Ralphie never stopped them from using it, and he never knew who he was going to find there. He had no idea that some would rob him, or that they would use it when he wasn’t there. That they did both of these things went right past him.
But the real problem was that they soon became immune to him and treated him like it was a communal apartment, with everyone having the “same ideas” and everyone friends.
It was in the apartment that Adele met a variety of people. She went there every day after school.
People came in and out of town from university - back and forth, to and fro. Ralphie knew most of them, and had taken courses with some of them. And Ralphie’s apartment became a meeting place for all of them.
Adele, not even knowing that she was doing it at times, tried to ingratiate herself with these people. She believed that what they said must necessarily be true and she began to try to dress like them, with what Dr. Hennessey called “the back-to-the-land-poor look of those who could afford it.”
However, because Adele had been poor all of her life she had seen more of life by the age of sixteen than a lot of these people - or at least a lot of life some people coming from university had taken courses on and pretended to be dismayed about. It was becoming a cultural thing to be dismayed at the right times about the right things. Adele had seen and heard more of all of the things that were becoming sanctioned as the concerns of the day, but she always measured herself against these people, and always found herself lacking.
That is, the affectation of concern was always seductive, but wit and affectation most often eclipsed Adele, with her nervous stomach, her skirt with the hanging hem, and her chewed mitts.
Analysis of Nights Below Station Street
The two passages above from Nights Below Station Street, Richards’ Governor-General’s-Award-winning novel, display his characteristic style. It is a style that, at least in his early work, operates largely by suggestion. Reading Richards, then, takes work. He assumes that his readers will follow his suggestions and clues to the meanings he intends – and he has faith that they will do so.
The opening line of the first passage above provides an example. “It was the Christmas of 1972” – in other words, three months after the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and Russia, the series that brought the Cold War to us and that shook our sense of being the undisputed hockey nation of the world. Suddenly, our previous assumptions of supremacy seemed the boasts of an isolated nation, a nation not sufficiently tested on the world stage. Yes, there had been international tournaments that we had won, and won handily for years, but coming so close to defeat at the hands of a rag-tag bunch of hockey pretenders rattled our belief in the one thing at which we excelled, the one thing we shared across regions, languages, classes, ethnicities, and time. The experience threw us off balance and forced us to grow up, which we did in the cold, dark autumn and winter that followed. Richards’ novel opens, then, not just in the Christmas season of 1972, but in a very special Christmas season: a season of indecisiveness, self-doubt, and cultural fatigue. That fatigue colours the action of this novel.
Joe, the novel’s protagonist, is struggling to stay off the bottle; his stepdaughter Adele is a moody adolescent with “bad nerves and upsetting feelings”; and Joe’s wife Rita “was nervous too. … afraid that she was going to do something to cause him to drink.” Everyone is off balance, the Christmas tree in the corner “against the pine-board wall” more emblematic than festive. This is decidedly not the season portrayed in Chatelaine or Better Homes and Gardens. Martha Stewart would be frightened here.
Heightening the nervous intrigue is the fact that Joe and his family cannot live privately. They are portrayed as being trapped by community definition and expectation. Joe paces “back and forth,” like a caged animal, while the “whistle from the mill” blows, the movement of the cascading sound placing him on the periphery. The geography Richards employs in these opening paragraphs is akin to the geography that Antonine Maillet uses to position Acadians (and la Sagouine) on the sidelines. Both characters are always seen but never central.
Further proof of this is evident when Ralphie, Adele’s boyfriend, appears on the scene. His memory of first meeting Adele’s father Joe is carefully crafted:
Ralphie had been hearing of Joe Walsh since he had been a little boy. He had heard that he hurt his back, and though he could still be called strong, and could still be capable of tremendous strength, he was acting at about half of what he had once been. Everyone in town had told him of this also.
Not only is Joe’s household destabilized by what those closest to him consider his tentative sobriety, but the community beyond that family circle is also suspect, their suspicions driven by a long-standing fear of Joe’s physical power and reputation. Joe must therefore not only contend with himself in striving for sobriety but also with everyone around him, near and far.
His daughter Adele is especially hard on him. She ridicules him in front of Ralphie, accuses him of being a poor provider, and subjects him to the worst outbursts and verbal abuses that a fifteen-year-old girl can conjure. Yet Joe loves and dotes on her, displaying a patience that is out of proportion to what circumstances should allow. What does Richards want us to make of this paradox? Is Adele simply going through a terrible adolescent phase, and thus excusable, or is Joe a dolt who doesn’t even know when he’s being insulted?
Richards is suggesting neither. Instead, he is skilfully showing us (rather than telling us) what alcoholism does to a family. Adele is the child of an alcoholic parent, thus a child of broken promises. She lashes out at Joe to protect herself, expecting, like her mother, that Joe would “go for the bottle any second.” She is therefore acting out her fears and disappointments while keeping her hopes for normalcy deeply buried. She simply can’t afford to be heartened by Joe’s latest attempt, for history has taught her otherwise. And Joe knows this. His sensitivity and shame for what he has inflicted on his family require him to exercise a martyr’s tolerance, for he knows in his deepest self that his injuries to Adele were greater than her ridicule of him. What Richards shows us in the early pages of his novel is thus a very subtle negotiation going on between Adele and Joe, a negotiation further complicated by the invisible but ever-present agency of the prying eyes of neighbours and the community at large. That Richards is able to communicate so much family history and emotion with so few words is remarkable, a talent that requires us, as readers, to take special care to give his work the attention it warrants.
* * *
The second passage above is equally subtle and expansive. It switches our attention from Joe’s immediate family to Joe’s neighbours, specifically the meddlesome Myhrra. Richards introduces Joe’s interaction with her with characteristic suggestion.
Myhrra doesn’t exactly ask Joe for help, but she intrudes, calling him at “six o’clock one morning, when it was still dark.” Her car won’t start, and her need to get somewhere trumps any thought of disturbing Joe. Richards conveys this intrusion very skilfully. He doesn’t tell us that Joe is miffed but turns his descriptive attention to the physical environment to communicate that:
The air smelled cool again. The street outside was broken up. The sky was still filled with pulp and smoke and down below on the river a buoy light winked, saying I am not just any light but a light from a pont-shaped river buoy.
The seemingly odd description of a river buoy suggests an unusual agency: everyone and everything around Joe is insistent, calling attention to itself and its need. Richards’ hope is that we transfer this demand for attention from the inanimate object (the river buoy) to Myhrra.
But the need for self-fulfillment that everyone demands is only part of what Joe must face. He must also face the darker side of that demand, which is the need to rob others of agency while seeking agency for oneself. Myhrra’s question about Joe’s experience in jail begins this process of taking away Joe’s agency and his dignity. But Myhrra is no casual predator. She mounts a full assault on Joe, targeting his insecurities. “‘Are you drinking yet, Joe,’” is her first question, a question asked as she peers inadvertently (or so she wishes it to appear) at the carburetor. There follows an exchange in which it is revealed that Myhrra does not drink, so is clearly baiting Joe, who is there, we mustn’t forget, to help her. Myhrra then brings their young children into the discussion, putting her own child’s talents up against Joe’s child’s failings: “‘Byron is smart,’ Myhrra said. ‘As ambidextrous as hell, too. Is Milly passing? Or is she flunking out like she did in kindergarten?’” Once again, she is wounding the man she called on for help. Not content with these flesh wounds, she continues to strike at Joe, targeting his worries about his marriage – “‘Anyways,’ Myhrra said, ‘it would have been just terrible if she left you, Joe – when you were at your worst’” – and his concerns about Adele’s new boyfriend Ralphie, who, in her estimation, is nothing but a “hippie.”
While her intentions are clear, the effect of those intentions on Joe must occupy us as readers, for Joe is yet again embarking on an attempt at sobriety. Richards doesn’t restate this, but trusts that we will retain this important piece of information. If we do, we will come to understand that Joe, like the biblical Job, is being tested. He is not a man of wealth being brought down to prove a point about piety, but he is certainly a man being stripped of the riches of dignity – and a man who, in the process, doesn’t once speak ill of his abusers.
The pages that follow broaden to a larger statement about the social dramas that ensnare people like Joe, Adele, and Ralphie Pillar. They are the preyed-upon, with predators surfacing at multiple points with a rapacious need to disempower them. Whether it is Myhrra robbing the Pillar family of its last days with their father and husband in hospital, or the cult of schooled opinion (currently all about “the affectation of concern”) dictating attitudes and expediencies, the social landscape of the novel is rife with obstacles that thwart personal development. The careful reader might well ask why more people are not alcoholics like Joe, but, of course, that is not what Richards’ narrative invites. Rather, it invites meditation on the difficulty of achieving personal truth in a swamp of social predators. Joe is embarking yet again on that difficult path, and Adele and Ralphie are setting out on it for the first time. All understand exactly what they face, Joe formerly drinking in fear of it, Adele chewing her mitts and battling anxiety in fear of it, and Ralphie hiding from the bullies in fear of it. Yet each is brave despite the fear, a bravery that becomes a touchstone for people living in the midst of the social dramas of harm.
Richards is clearly no casual observer of the human condition. His novels are contemporary morality tales that examine and often unsettle our attitudes toward truth, justice, fellowship, community, and salvation. As such, he is the New Brunswick English-language writer most often associated with the spiritual.
Questions and Considerations for Reflection
► Attentive readers will note the similarity between Richards and Alden Nowlan (see Confessional Humanism). That similarity touches on empathy for individuals living within larger social structures that manipulate, stifle, or prejudge them. A similar likeness is evident in the work of Richards, Raymond Fraser, and Antonine Maillet (see Acadian Renaissance), that likeness involving the unashamed embrace of social pariahs as fully human and worthy of literary attention. In the case of each of those writers, the quality of the examination of the lives of the marginal or downtrodden was nationally trailblazing. While readers and critics lauded the abilities of Richards, Fraser, and Maillet as individual artists, however, no critic recognized that these humanist pioneers were all New Brunswickers. Why, then, has New Brunswick produced some of the finest humanists in the country? Is it because Alden Nowlan established a tradition that others followed, or is something else afoot? Perhaps something associated with the province’s experience of federalism or its history of structural disadvantage? The answer is complicated, pointing to an important research opportunity. (Part of the answer is to be found in thinking about why no critic outside of New Brunswick ever noticed, or admitted to noticing, that many of the country’s greatest humanists came from here. Is it fair to conclude that that observation would have to be followed by a series of admissions that some people in other parts of Canada would be uncomfortable making?)
► The most frequent criticism of Richards (and of Raymond Fraser) is that his work is depressing, by which people generally mean that they would rather not read about the lives of the working class, the poor, or the down-and-out. But is that a fair criticism? Must literature focus solely on the lives of a certain class or tell stories of a certain type? Why do some readers turn away from depictions of alcoholics like Joe Walsh – and is that turning away not exactly what Richards is writing about in the passages above? Furthermore, why are some of Richards’ harshest critics residents of the Miramichi? Should Miramichiers not be celebrating a national-class writer from their community? What would Richards have to write about to gain their endorsement? And what might be motivating his readers’ opposition to his depiction of their place? Is Wayne Curtis’ depiction of his Miramichi, a Miramichi largely recollected in the tranquility of memory, easier to digest? If so, what does that tell us about realism and taste?
► Richards’ humanist focus, a focus that is raised to the level of the spiritual, begs the question of his faith. The same question of faith informed the work and criticism of the early twentieth-century Canadian novelist Morley Callaghan. Callaghan and Richards were Catholic, and each placed the human journey toward freedom and salvation at the centre of his work. Each also wrote entire novels to explore the concepts of grace, charity, redemption, forgiveness, and love. In Such is My Beloved (1934), one of Callaghan’s best-known novels, a young priest intervenes in the lives of two prostitutes and must endure the scorn and judgement of his supposedly enlightened peers. Richards is similarly attracted to such paradoxes, whether between the absolutism of faith and the compromises of the Church, or between the public avowals of tolerance and the private suspicions of those who seek redemption. The similarity of Richards and Callaghan, and of Raymond Fraser and Antonine Maillet, also brought up Catholic, invites us to consider not just the Catholicism of their work, but how that system of belief is manifest in their choice of character, class, social conflict, etc. Is the work of Richards and Fraser similar partly because of a faith tradition? If so, and writ larger, are there characteristic forms and attentions that writers coming from a Catholic tradition employ? Given the dominance of Catholicism in New Brunswick’s Acadian population, those questions are especially germane to our provincial literature.
Strategies for Teachers
Strategy 1: Extraordinary but Not Unusual (Nights Below Station Street)
Richards, responding to an interview question about the importance of place in his writing, said “It’s very important, because the characters come from the soil. They’re like the trees, in a certain respect. They cling to that river and that soil, but as Jack Hodgins once said about my writing: ‘David, you aren’t writing about the Miramichi Valley, you’re writing about Campbell River where I come from. Because every character you talk about is a character I’ve met here in Campbell River.’”
Ask students to consider whether this statement rings true for them: do they recognize any of the characters in Nights Below Station Street? For example, are the feisty 15-year-old Adele and her equally odd boyfriend Ralphie familiar? And, more importantly, can students see Richards’ skill in shaping them as real people, who are simultaneously extraordinary but not unusual?
Extension: Ask each student to grab a book of popular fiction and find the place where a main character is introduced. Read the first two sentences of the introduction aloud, comparing these introductions to the two sentences that introduce Adele. In most books, the reader might get a sense of what the character looks like, and maybe a general idea of whether she/he is a hero type, a rebel type, etc. Ask students to compare the introduction of Adele with the introduction of the other characters they find, considering whether each seems like a real person or a character type. What is Richards telling us and not telling us about his characters?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Make informed personal responses to increasingly challenging print and media texts and reflect on their responses
Strategy 2: Construct a Facebook Profile (Nights Below Station Street)
Ask students to select one of the characters, perhaps Adele or Ralphie, and explore that character though constructing a Facebook profile. This could be done via websites that allow students to create fake profiles or on blank profile printouts to get around connectivity issues. How would the character present him/herself? In what tone and with what formality of language would he/she write? Who would his friends be? What would she “like”? What types of ads would target him/her?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Writing and Representing: Make critical choices of form, style, and content to address increasingly complex demands of different purposes and audiences
Strategy 3: Interpreting Dialogue (Nights Below Station Street)
As mentioned above in the analysis, Richards’ style “operates largely by suggestion.” Select a short exchange of dialogue, and have students debate the intent and motivations of the characters involved. For example, take the following small exchange, where Thelma and Ralphie discuss Myrrha in the hospital:
“Who is that person?” Thelma asked once.
“She’s just trying to be kind,” Ralphie said.
A lesser writer, or one less trusting of the reader, would use overly-descriptive verbs and adverbs to clarify how the reader is meant to interpret the speech. Students might be accustomed to reading exchanges like
“Who is that person?” Thelma sneered/scoffed/etc.
“She’s just trying to be kind,” Ralphie replied generously/defensively/bitterly/obtusely.
However, this kind of clarification isn’t necessary if the reader is paying attention. Ralphie’s reply wouldn’t make sense if Thelma’s question was innocently curious, so we know it was pointed. Readers would notice the gulf between trying to be kind and being kind. If they are observant of human behaviour, and have encountered people like Myrrha before, they would also recognize that “trying to be kind” can be translated to “trying to present an image of kindness.”
Ask students, in pairs, to rehearse speaking these lines, or a longer selection of dialogue. After sharing their performance with the class, pairs can explain the rationale behind their tone of voice, referring to evidence from the text or their own life experiences to justify the choice of tone.
Extension: Ask students to select a page from any work of popular fiction, rewriting it in a suggestive rather than explicit style. Note that this doesn’t mean they should be mysterious, only that they should ruthlessly cut those elements that force the reader to feel or interpret in a certain manner. It might help the activity to compare it to removing the laugh track from a sitcom, or removing the swelling music from a movie that tells you when to cry or to be uplifted (examples of each can be found on Youtube to use as a prompt). How does this stylistic change affect the relationship between reader and text? Do students prefer writing/narrative that requires their personal investment, or do they prefer narrative that asks less of them?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Examine how textual features help a reader and viewer to create meaning of the texts
Strategy 4: Regional Writing (Nights Below Station Street)
An interview between Richards and R.M. Vaughan should provoke a discussion about regional identity. In one segment, the writers discuss having critics analyze their work for regional elements, with Richards noting “if you are read as a … New Brunswick writer first, instead of just a writer, there is an implied idea that you are trying to cozy up to your ‘superiors’ by exposing the hinterland where you live.… There are writers in New Brunswick, and elsewhere, who find it fashionable to talk about the hinterland in the same way a fashionable urban writer from Vancouver might. What I’m getting at is not that people shouldn’t talk about places in this way, but that it produces a kind of sameness – an almost blatant lack of vision that poses for overall truth.”
In this teaching strategy, invite students to think of examples of New Brunswick writing, art, or other media that seek to describe the province. Do those examples feel genuine and true, or are they laced with references to larger cultural narratives and stereotypes about us (narratives of poverty, violence, obesity, illiteracy, etc.)? It might help to use the example of explicitly regional television shows like Duck Dynasty or Jersey Shore, where things are exaggerated, distorted, and manufactured for the entertainment of people from elsewhere. When such myths become popular, however, people from the regions that those myths portray can begin to display and reproduce these constructed identities, insisting it is who they are. The question to consider becomes one of identity construction: who authors the identities we create, and how fluid are those identities? If we dislike them, are we free to construct new identities, or will we be judged harshly if we do that? This exercise will enlighten students about who is really in charge of their own sense of who they are and where they come from, thus reinforcing the importance of knowing local history and literature. The essential point to be made is that if we as individuals and communities don’t establish and assert an identity, then others outside our area certainly will – and it will likely not be complimentary.
Extension: Some of Richards’ harshest critics come from the Miramichi, where people complain that his stories and characters are depressing (see the second point above under “Questions and Considerations for Reflection”). Some people object to the way that their region is portrayed in his work. Is that because the region is portrayed inaccurately, or too accurately? Would students be proud to declare that a great writer such as Richards came from their community, or would they be reluctant to do so given the content of his work and the tide of opposition to it? In answering this question, students will learn that “taste” is not a value-neutral thing; we all read and form impressions through carefully made filters of public opinion.
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Examine how media texts construct notions of roles, behaviour, culture, and reality
Armstrong, Christopher, and Herb Wyile. “Firing the Regional Can(n)on: Liberal Pluralism, Social Agency, and David Adams Richards’ Miramichi Trilogy.” Studies in Canadian Literature/Études en Littérature Canadienne 22.1 (1997): 1-18.
Connor, H.W. “Coming of Winter, Coming of Age: The Autumnal Vision of David Adams Richards’ First Novel.” Studies in Canadian Literature/Études en Littérature Canadienne 9.1 (1984): 31-40.
---. “The River in the Blood: Escape and Entrapment in the Fiction of David Adams Richards.” World Literature Written in English 26.2 (Fall 1986): 269-77.
Richards, David Adams. Interview by Linda Richards. January Magazine November 2000. 21 July 2020 <http://januarymagazine.com/profiles/darichards.html>.
---. Interview by R.M. Vaughan. Books in Canada September 1993. 21 July 2020 <http://www.booksincanada.com/article_view.asp?id=1550>.
---. Nights Below Station Street. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1988.
Tremblay, Tony. “Answering the Critics: David Adams Richards and the Paradox of Unpopularity.” The Antigonish Review 128 (Winter 2002): 119-28.
---. “David Adams Richards: Canada’s ‘Independent’ Intellectual.” Hollins Critic 36.4 (1999): 1-14.
---. David Adams Richards of the Miramichi: A Biographical Introduction. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2010.
---, ed. David Adams Richards: Essays on His Works. Writers Series 16. Toronto: Guernica, 2005.
For much more detailed primary and secondary source bibliographies of Richards, see his New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.
We gratefully acknowledge the generosity of David Adams Richards for allowing us to use the passages above for this curriculum. Further use or distribution of these passages, however, is a violation of Canadian copyright law and is strictly prohibited. Under no circumstance may literary material used in the curriculum be reproduced, distributed, or stored without the permission of the copyright holder.
Both passages above appear in Richards’ Nights Below Station Street. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1988. 7-14; 38-48.
All contents except for poetry and fiction copyright © Tony Tremblay, James W. Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell.