Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
The Shipping News is a work about another world. In one sense, that world is the richly regional, vanishing world of Newfoundland. In another sense, it is Never-Never Land, a place of magic spells carried in knotted cords and prescient dreams. Proulx, herself a native New Englander with Canadian roots, knows much about small-town life, which she explores with a surfeit of telling detail. Before becoming a fiction writer, she spent nineteen years working as a freelance journalist who supported herself by writing primarily for outdoor magazines, and that experience shows in her work. She writes with surpassing beauty about the land and seascape of Newfoundland and observes the minute particulars of a seal hunt with a practiced eye.
The specificity of such description is set off against the narrative shorthand employed by most of the characters, even the narrator: “The motel’s neon sign, TICKLE MOTEL, BAR AND RESTAURANT, flickered as he steered into the parking lot, weaving past parked trucks and cars, long distance rigs, busted-spring swampers, 4WD pickups, snowplows, snowmobiles.” Such lists often serve to set the scene and, like the diagrams and epigraphs from The Ashley Book of Knots, serve to tie the book together in a way that is less than explicit, that says much by saying little. The interstices between the words, in effect, create a space where the two worlds of the novel meet, where the large, lumbering Quoyle becomes Everyman and Killick-Claw a kind of magical kingdom.