Death on the Ice is a vivid retelling of the harrowing events off the coast of northeastern Newfoundland in March 1914. Seventy-eight sealers from the SS Newfoundland perished when they were stranded on pack ice in a raging blizzard for 53 hours.
Written by Cassie Brown and published in 1972, Death on the Ice is a Canadian classic; the story is one of Newfoundland and Labrador’s great tragedies and still resonates today. The book’s narrative is based on interviews with several survivors of the tragedy—their memories, and Brown’s attention to preserving their detail, are as spellbinding as they are heartbreaking.
“It’s a book designed to be read out loud,” says Kimberly Orren, co-founder of Fishing for Success, a non-profit organization based in Petty Harbour, Newfoundland and Labrador. “Heading it aloud is just like having waves roll over you. It’s an enveloping experience.”
Fishing for Success is sponsoring a live reading of Death on the Ice as part of Seal Fest. Orren hope the reading will become an annual event.
Fishing for Success was established five years ago to teach children about the province’s fishing heritage through hands-on experience. The organization now offers a range of educational and community programs, including Girls Who Fish, Wild Family Nature Club, and others aimed at new Canadians, youth groups, tourists, and anyone else with an interest in local fishing traditions.
“We get involved in promoting local fish for local people,” says Orren. “And one of those local foods is seal meat. We are slowly moving into a discussion of sealing and seal hunting as part of a larger conversation—how do we eat local? how do we eat sustainably? how do we reduce our carbon footprint?
“Reading Death on the Ice is a way of engaging people in the story. Not just that seal is tasty and important source of nutrition, but also about how the people that came before us had to suffer this rather brutal work on the ice to bring seal back to us.” In that way, the book event is a perfect and poignant addition to the Seal Fest schedule.
Orren estimates it takes about six-and-a-half hours to read the book aloud, cover to cover. The live event, scheduled for Saturday, March 28, starts at noon and should wrap up around 8 p.m., including time for musical performances between chapters and introductions to the various readers taking part. Free child-care and food will be available.
“I expect that some people will stay for the whole thing, I hope so,” says Orren. “But everyone is welcome to come and go, depending on the time they have available.”
Appropriately, the reading coincides with the 106th anniversary of the 1914 sealing disaster.
“Events in the book take place at the end of March,” Orren point out. “People will leave the reading and they’ll be wearing their thick winter jackets and winter boots, and maybe they’ll think about those men on the ice and how thin their boots were.
“The descriptions in the book are so vivid—whether or not the sealers were wearing caps is discussed in the book, and whether or not they were willing to take a cap from a man who was dying when they were just trying to survive a night on the ice … it brings a new whole level of appreciation for where we are and where we came from.”
The Death on the Ice live reading will be held at the Anglican Cathedral, 16 Church Hill, St. John’s, March 28, starting at noon. It is a free community event. Free childcare services and food will be available.
For more information, or to volunteer, email Kimberly Orren at Fishing@IslandRooms.org; check www.facebook.com/FishingForSuccess for updates.
This post is also available in: Français (French)