Academic journal article Newfoundland and Labrador Studies

Stephen and Florence Tasker and Unromantic Labrador

Academic journal article Newfoundland and Labrador Studies

Stephen and Florence Tasker and Unromantic Labrador

Article excerpt

Introduction

For over a hundred years, the story of Stephen and Florence Tasker's 1906 expedition has been of little service to Labrador culture and criticism. This is strange, given that celebrated guide George Elson was involved, (1) but on the other hand the story's themes and details do little to confirm prevailing ideas of regional identity, and Labrador's literary canon has only recently begun to expand beyond the task of identity formation. As readership practices mature and the canon's needs change, stories like the Taskers' become more useful, even necessary. At the same time, the Taskers' 1906 photo album has happily made its way into the archives at Memorial University Libraries, prompting new research that gives us the chance to understand them in ways we never have before.

The album documents a journey also retold in the periodicals of the day: a circumscription of the Labrador Peninsula from Missanabie, Ontario, through James and Hudson Bays, across Ungava by paddle and portage, then along the coast to Cartwright and St. John's, and back by rail and ferry to Ontario. The adventure narrative itself would find an audience today, with illustrations and a selection of news sources to choose from, but greater value is to be found in the Taskers' prose, which is forthright, vigorous, and startling, both in its content and in its variety. In fact, taken together, Stephen's and Florence's short works do not merely supplement a reading list, but actually uncover an alternative view of Labrador: a view like a bugbear, which always haunts us but is seldom seen.

Almost alone among their contemporaries, the Taskers do not immediately find romance on the peninsula. (2) Rather, they discover what the cynics within us fear: that a landscape may be desolate without being sublime, and that poverty, hardship, and isolation do not inevitably ennoble a society. Stephen in particular longed to believe in the romance of Labrador and the North, pursuing it throughout his life in travels and in writing spanning 30 years. He may have eventually persuaded himself, but while literary Labrador is usually either a land accursed by God or a sacred homeland and inviolable trust, (3) the Taskers initially depict it merely as a disappointment. For them, the barrens do not partake of grand themes: they are barren of theme itself.

To brush aside accounts like these is to neglect an opportunity. Stephen is obviously sincere, and his Progressive Era prejudice and naive privilege make it more likely for him to idealize Labrador, not less--as demonstrated by his contemporaries and his own gradual reformation from a detractor to a celebrant of Labrador. Florence is a different case, but reading her alongside her husband contextualizes the stark contrast between her account of the Labrador trip and her previous writing. The more we read the Taskers' output, the more we realize that their understanding of Labrador is not at issue; rather, it is our own. We do not read the young, wealthy, Philadelphian couple to learn about Labrador: we read them to learn about our own assumptions about the region. By challenging the empirical basis for a romantic Labrador, which is our most dominant literary theme, the Taskers help us realize that we may be better off dismantling the idea than defending it.

Explorers of Leisure

Stephen and Florence Tasker are best understood in the company of Leonidas and Mina Hubbard, Dillon Wallace, William Brooks Cabot, and Hesketh Prichard. These seven middle-class white explorers all first set foot on the peninsula between 1903 and 1906, seeking adventure. Each had romantic ideas and literary leanings, but their defining characteristic is that none had a strong professional imperative to be in Labrador. They were mainly urban professionals (4) attracted by the mystique of Labrador's land and people, as stirred up in the American Northeast and England by the lecture tours and reputation of medical missionary Wilfred Grenfell. …

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