Causeway: a Passage from Innocence

Reviewed: September 16, 2008
By: Linden MacIntyre
Publisher: Harper Collins Canada
259 pages, $21.95

I first drove across the Canso Causeway when I was quite young, pre-teen, I think, but certainly before junior high school. By that point it had been completed for less than a decade, having opened on August 13, 1955, and people were still driving there just to see it. Driving across that artificial isthmus almost a mile long (1.385 m) with the weird swinging bridge at the end was seen as an adventure.

There wouldn’t be anything quite as exciting happen again until the opening of the 12.9 kilometre Confederation Bridge from New Brunswick to Prince Edward Island in 1997.

Truth to tell, you get a better view from the causeway than from the bridge. The wind and crash barriers on the bridge are so high you have to be in at least a large SUV or truck to see the Northumberland Strait as you drive over it, whereas you can see the Strait of Canso quite easily from the causeway

Linden MacIntyre remembers when the Causeway wasn’t there at all, when several ferries (passenger, freight and railcar) were the only means of crossing to mainland Nova Scotia. MacIntyre, better known now as one of the reporters behind C.B.C.’s Fifth Estate, grew up in Port Hastings, then a small village on the Cape Breton side of the Strait of Canso, looking across the water at the little town of Auld’s Cove.

This memoir is largely the story of that period between 1952 and 1955 when the world changed forever. In MacIntyre’s mind history was divided into Before Causeway and After Causeway.

The book doesn’t start there, though. It begins by examining the uneasy relationship between MacIntyre and his father, Dan Rory, as well as the rift between himself and his cultural heritage. It begins in the fall of 1968, on one of MacIntyre’s occasional visits home, a visit he is able to make because he’s a journalist on assignment flying to Sydney with two Liberal cabinet ministers and the rest of the press gang. Official business done, he has the chance to take the two hour drive home and see the family. It’s an awkward visit, punctuated by strangeness and fueled by too much booze.

It establishes the tone of the book though and cues us to watch the father-son relationship, which is awkward to the end

The bulk of the book is about growing up, ages 9 to 12 in detail and some beyond that like a skimmed stone; important years in school, important years for establishing the first draft of your self-image, important years for shifting family dynamics.

The thing about the family was that Dan Rory was hardly ever home. He was a miner and that meant going where the jobs were and bringing home the money when he could. Dan Rory has hopes of being an independent trucker or a saw mill owner, and there are various times in his life when he manages it for short periods, but it seems his luck is against him and his son often feels there is a buidseachd or curse, upon him.

It’s clear that the MacIntyre family was poor, and yet it seemed that it held together pretty well and that most of the important things happened as they should.

While the first person present tense narrative reminded me irresistibly of Frank McCourt’s memoirs, I’m sure Frank would have been happy to trade his poor Irish Catholic childhood for MacIntyre’s altogether more wholesome poor Catholic Cape Breton upbringing.

Young Linden meets a lot of interesting people who enter and leave his life in a variety of ways. Some are the children of engineers who come to work on the causeway, One sad man is what we used to call a displaced person, an immigrant who is working in the construction camp and hoping to bring his family out from behind the Iron Curtain. Another is a young man from Japan who attempts a cross cultural experiment that Linden is almost too young, at 14 years old, to comprehend.

Change is a constant in this book. MacIntyre’s parents have moved from the island highlands to village life. His paternal grandmother, Peigeag, lives on a mountain and speaks mostly Gaelic. Dan Rory still has the tongue and speaks it with his peers, but doesn’t pass it on to Linden, who has to reclaim it as an adult.

The book ends about six months after the opening chapter, with MacIntyre attending his father’s funeral. The irony of Dan Rory’s life was that the hard work that ought to have killed him didn’t, and that he died only after he was finally settled into a comfortable government job and able to live at home.

Causeway lived in our trailer most of the summer and was my evening reading when we travelled about from Atlin to Eagle and points in between. It was a sustaining, pleasant book that travelled well and was always easy to come back to.