Closer By Sea – Picture this if you will. It’s the summer of 1991 in Perigo Island, a remote community off the coast of Newfoundland, where its cod fisheries are experiencing economic difficulties that directly and indirectly affects everyone on the island.
Pierce Jacobs is a teenager who lives on the island with his mother Diane, who works at the fish plant. His father, who was a cod fisherman, disappeared without a trace three years earlier while doing his daily fishing expedition to catch a multitude of the area’s prized cod. His body was never found, but his fishing boat remained behind.
In this summer of 1991, Pierce and his best buddies Thomas and Bennie spend precious time together before they head out to school on the mainland that fall. Besides cutting out cod tongues to sell to tourists so they can make some extra cash, the trio – who are joined by Bennie’s cousin Emily, who hails from New York City – all of a sudden have a mystery that falls upon their laps. Anna Tessier, a young teenage girl from the island, suddenly disappears without a trace. Her disappearance affects Pierce, because he had a special relationship with Anna following his father’s disappearance.
So the quartet decide to embark upon a search expedition throughout the island to hopefully find Anna alive and find out what caused her disappearance. Their main suspect is Solomon Vickers, who lives on the island like a hermit, and has a strange connection with the missing girl. Pierce, Thomas, Bennie and Emily are doggedly determined to find Anna and discover what was Solomon’s connection to her, regardless to the consternation of Pierce’s mom, and the constant harassment courtesy of the local street gang Ross Coles and the Arseholes.
Does this plot sound like Stephen King writing an Atlantic Canada version of his novella The Body, which was adapted into the memorable 1986 movie Stand By Me, and was directed by Rob Reiner?
Sort of. Actually, it’s the scenario that makes up Closer By Sea, the debut novel by Perry Chafe, a well-known Canadian TV writer/producer/showrunner from Newfoundland, whose credits include the hit TV series Republic of Doyle and Son of A Critch.
“A lot of me and my childhood are portrayed in the book. I grew up in Petty Harbour, a small town that had 1000 people and three fishing plants,” Perry said during a recent phone interview. “Like Pierce and his friends, I experienced first-hand many of the things they did when I was growing up, including cutting out cod tongues.”
“During my youth in Newfoundland, like in the book, the province went through a cod moratorium, in which over 30,000 people who worked in the fisheries were out of work, including my family. And during those summers, I spent my time trying to make as much money as possible, so that I could go to university,” he added.
Actually, whenever Perry is told that the narrative of Closer By Sea has elements of The Body in it, he takes it as a high compliment. “I read The Body and it stuck with me,” he said. “I loved the idea of kids going on an adventure and finding out about themselves at the same time, but I like to lean heavily on adult themes, too.”
The choice to set the novel in his native Newfoundland was not a difficult one for Perry, as it’s been a fertile ground for Canadian film, TV, comedy and literature for more than 50 years, and has boasted such well-known examples like the late Gordon Pinsent’s The Rowdyman and the comedy troupe Codco. “Newfoundland has become the ideal place to shoot a movie or TV series; it’s like a well-kept secret,” he said. “It’s a rugged land that bred a lot of storytellers – many of them were fishing people — and their stories stemmed from the culture of the land, especially of their isolation from the mainland. I grew up listening to these great storytellers, and I immersed myself from an early age with their tall tales.”
When reading Closer By Sea, one can easily point out the contributions made by Pierce and Emily to the development of the narrative, especially of Pierce’s determination to find Anna and Emily being the perennial fish out of water. “Pierce lost his father at sea and it’s something he has to bear with, yet he refuses to accept the fact that his father is dead because he never got any closure, which is why he is so determined to find the missing girl,” stated Perry. “As for Emily, she is like a buffer for Pierce; however, she is a strange girl who possesses a lot of appeal to him, Thomas and Bennie because she is from a massive city and is reacting to what life is like in an isolated community. And as we progress through the story, we find out that Emily becomes influential towards helping Pierce through his personal recovery process.”
“Closer By Sea would make a wonderful feature film, but I think if it becomes a limited TV series, it would do more justice to the book. But the writers have to get it right before it hits the small or big screen,” he added.
Perry Chafe has made an impressive literary debut with Closer By Sea. It’s an engrossing novel of teenage end of the innocence, coming to terms with personal loss, the wonderful recklessness of teenage curiosity and adventure, and the terrible beauty of Newfoundland and its unintentional isolationism. A book to definitely include on your summer reading list.