The Shipping News

by Annie Proulx

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Chapters 19-21 Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 479

Billy Pretty, the seventy-something reporter who works with Quoyle, is going to Gaze Island and invites Quoyle to go with him. Both their families had once lived on Gaze Island, not far from the Newfoundland shore. Billy is going over to clean his father’s gravestone. He has not been there for three years.

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The passage between the islands is covered in rocks. Some rocks are visible; others lay under the water but are still high enough to rip open a ship. Billy has navigated the passage since he was a boy. He knows where the clear passages are. He also calls out the names of some of the rocks as his boat passes by. Billy is likewise knowledgeable of the human history of the islands.

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He tells Quoyle first about his family’s history. His father was born in England to a family who could not afford him. They put him in an orphanage, which subsequently sold him into labor under an arrangement with Canadian farmers. This was a common practice at the time. The boat carrying Billy’s father capsized off the coast of Gaze Island, and he was rescued by a local family who took him in as a son. He was one of the lucky ones. The others were sent along and raised as slaves in Canada. Billy’s father was taught to read and was well looked after. He took on his new family’s name. The Prettys were gentle people, Billy claims. Everyone looked out for the others, shared their bounty, and helped when food was scarce. They were not like the Quoyles.

According to Billy, the Quoyles were like pirates. They rigged ways to lure big ships to Gaze Island, leading them over the hidden rocks, which sank them. The Quoyles then stole the ships’ bounty and killed the survivors. The Quoyles were no good, Billy says. He also relates the story of how the Quoyles were forced off Gaze Island and how, in the middle of winter, they pushed the big house in which Quoyle now lives across the frozen passage between Gaze Island and Newfoundland.

Later as they make their way back to Newfoundland, a thick fog rolls in, and Billy has to blindly navigate through the rocks. The tide has gone out, so even more rocks are visible, though they do not see them until the boat is all but on top of them. Quoyle sees a suitcase caught on top of one of the rocks; he grabs it. He has a faint recollection of having seen the suitcase before but cannot identify when or where. As they get close to shore, Quoyle notices a foul odor that he finally traces to the suitcase. Once on land, he opens it. Inside is a mutilated head. He recognizes it as that of Bayonet Melville, the owner of the Tough Baby.

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Chapters 22-24 Summary