Like the tides that have washed her shores forever, the story of Cape Breton has always been one of comings and goings. Native peoples came here while Europeans were still living in caves. In 1820, the fiery Presbyterian minister Norman MacLeod and his flock settled in the St. Ann’s Bay area, and their presence is still felt in the communities that line the shore six generations after many of them left, bound this time for New Zealand.
Bill Conall grew up in Ontario and lived for several years each in Saskatoon and British Columbia, before moving to Cape Breton. He is an acoustic musician, composer and writer. Most of his songs are strongly visual, so it is not surprising that his performances also feature the presentation of bits of poetry, along with artfully-told original stories. To date, he has recorded two albums of original music.
Conall describes himself as “an occasional victim of poetry”. His short fiction has been published in several Canadian magazines, and in the anthology Shorelines. His first book, The Rock in the Water (Hidden Book Press), was published in 2009, and shortlisted for the 2010 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. Recently his short story “The Iceberg Galley” appeared in the anthology The Men’s Breakfast, Breton Books, 2011. The Promised Land is Conall’s second book.
The Promised Land begins with the arrival of a small truckload of hippies in 1970. Moving against the tide of young people leaving Cape Breton, they are eager to get back-to-the-land. They are also grubby, scrawny and broke, and in this regard are not unlike those original Scottish settlers who preceded them. There are stories of humour and pathos as the newcomers and the locals adjust to each other, culminating in the legendary hippies’ ceilidh.
Four decades later, another new arrival crosses the Canso Causeway to begin her career as a medical doctor at a clinic in Baddeck. And on his first-ever trip outside the Boston States comes loud, brash, 78-year-old Gavin Mercer to visit on his niece’s little farm in Indian Brook. Young Gummer MacInnes, grandson of one of the original hippies, forms a friendship with Black Angus MacDonald that results in a brief spark of worldwide fame for both of them.
Through the adventures of his characters, Bill Conall’s story is told with humour, kindness, insight, and with the gentleness of touch that can only come from a writer who loves his subject.
Bill Conall’s The Promised Land skillfully and hilariously navigates the ebb and flow of island life where things go from better to worse to Oh My Goodness! And all the while, he shares his characters’ belief that “They’re all good days if we’re here to see them.”
Celebrate the offical launch The Promised Land Thursday, May 2 from 4-6pm at the Cape Breton Centre for Craft and Design on Charlotte Street in Sydney. CBC Mainstreet’s Wendy Bergfeldt will broadcast live and there will be a reading, some songs, book sales and signing. Presented by Boularderie Island Press.