Making Family is a 2016 contemporary Newfoundland novel by debut author Jennifer White and self-published via the Smashwords print-on-demand service. It tells the story of Rose, a lonely old woman who comes home one day to find a distraught teenager named Hannah, who claims to be her granddaughter, sitting on her front porch. Set in Newfoundland, this is a story of strong women. Hannah seeks out Rose when the unthinkable happens to her and she needs somewhere to turn. Her mother is unreachable and Hannah really needs a woman to talk to. Rose sets out to help her through a difficult time, but worries that Hannah will want nothing to do with her once she learns about the past – after all, it’s the reason Hannah, her father, and brother never knew that Rose was still alive.
This novel is of a particular genre which I call “Newfoundland Generational.” Popularized after the multi-generational narratives of Bernice Morgan’s Random Passage and Waiting for Time, the Newfoundland Generational stories focus on family as the center of life on the island and its culture. These stories — rather than focusing exclusively on one character — mainly focus one the generational ties (or lack thereof) between characters. Such is the case with Making Family, which tells the story of four generations of the starring family: Rose, Mary, Hannah, and the fourth generation around whom the plot revolves.
This novel does a lot with the “Newfoundland Generational” staples, drawing equally from the inspirations of the local talent that came before it as the popular contemporary fiction of the age. It’s endemic of Newfoundland contemporary fiction at this moment in time, as fiction writers grapple with influences both from our culture and the outside world.
I love taking the Freudian method of dream analysis and applying it to literature. Quick/Dirty rundown: you take the part of the book that bothered you the most, then spin the analysis so that that is what the book is about. At least, what it’s about for you.
What bothered me about this novel early on was a certain unreality to the characters other than Rose, who is post protagonist and narrator. Dialog and descriptions of characters other than herself fall victim to unrealism: Hannah describes herself as an “average everyday teenager,” which no teenager does (they, like most people honestly, tend to ossolate between having too high or too low an opinion of themselves). There’s also a point where a character is drugged and disrobed while unable to consent, and Rose questions at one point if a sexual assault took place (chapter eleven). This implies a view in which sexual assault only occurs after penetration: if she was disrobed, it was a sexual assault.
These contradictions and inconsistencies pile up until I realize this isn’t a reliable narrator, at which point the title of the novel takes on a new meaning: Rose is Making Family in the same way we make the past — through the distorted lens of our own opinions, politics, and fears.
Once you recognize your narrator as unreliable in a story told in the first-person, everything from that point on comes into question. In Chapter 12 when a traumatized child is left, by her father, in the care of his estranged mother-in-law without the mother’s knowledge or consent, I don’t follow Rose’s cue to see this as a good and necessary act — I see it as a kidnapping. The same is true of the revelations about Rose’s past and her own parent’s relationship. When her father strikes her clinically depressed mother in Chapter 20, this — and the consequences of it — aren’t seen through the eyes of someone we can trust. They are approached with the bewilderment of someone who doesn’t understand the relationship she has to her mother, her child, or her first lover, as is shown repeatedly.
When Mary isn’t brought into the picture and won’t forgive Rose for months at a time, it’s around this time that I wonder what exactly led to her estrangement from Rose, and I notice thematic changes from earlier in the novel: when Hannah’s brother, Josh, abruptly changes his Halloween costume from a Hobo to a Zombie — transforming from a romantic folk-hero into a parasitic monster in the form of a man.
It’s all this combined that leads me to believe that what this story is about — to me, in my reading of it — is actually the breakdown of the family, making the title tragically ironic and the image of the empty chair on the cover an apt one. This is a story about generational failures, compounded upon each generation like interest, until the novel’s climax. And viewed from that lens, it is a must-read indictment of the lack of self-awareness in the traditional Newfoundland family at this juncture.
Making Family is available in eBook format only on Kobo. This is a great debut novel with some interesting twists on the typical generational story — most of which I won’t spoil. I recommend it to anyone who has been waiting for a successor to the legacy of Bernice Morgan, as it continues those same themes of the dark secrets of familial bonds, but with a new generation. With family such an integral part of the Newfoundland cultural dynamic, these themes need to be examined at least once a generation, and Making Family may just be this generation’s voice.
‘Other Indie’ is a recurring series of articles on Engen Books in which authors highlight the best in independent publishing, in the hopes of helping readers break through the cluster of books they may not be sure about in an age when anyone can publish via digital formats. Engen Books is an independent small-press publishing company based in St. John’s Newfoundland and is proud to highlight the talent of independent authors not our own. Making Family is © 2016 Jennifer White. This review is © 2017 Matthew LeDrew. ‘Other Indie’ banner photo credit: Steve Lake.