Earl Pilgrim pens his sixth book
by J.M. Sullivan
“Now, it is a documented fact that over the years people have had dreams and visions of things happening far away. Ninety-nine per cent of the time these prophecies turned out to be nothing more than bouts of fantasy brought on by worry and anxiety. Ninety-nine per cent of alleged supernatural visions have proven to be nothing more than delusions. But sometimes they came true…”
— from The Ghost of Ellen Dower
Writers (it is often assumed) are sedentary creatures. They cultivate the quiet, value the solitary, and get nervous if they stray outside a fixed radius from their computers. They may occasionally run wild, but few are found in the wild, charting rivers, say, or tracking caribou herds.
But Earl Pilgrim, an author who has just released his sixth book, has done these things, and much more. The St. Anthony native studied forestry, served with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, and became their heavyweight boxing champion. Then he joined the forest rangers in Labrador and on the Northern Peninsula, eventually being promoted to wildlife protection officer with the Newfoundland wildlife service.
Instead of crafting paragraphs and culling the pages of a thesaurus, he was nabbing poachers and lobbying for big game conservation. In a telephone interview from his home in Roddickton, Pilgrim says his unusual background is actually what led him to writing his first book.
One night, while he was still working with the wildlife division, he was “caught out” in the same area where a Newfoundland Ranger named Danny Cochrane had been lost years before. Cochrane’s misadventure was a local legend.
“When I got back, some old fellas in Harbour Deep told me the story of Danny and his ordeal.” Pilgrim was so impressed with their narrative he sought to rename a local river in memory of Cochrane. “I wrote a three or four thousand word report and sent it in to the department. They said they couldn’t change the name for historical reasons, but what I’d reported was important and should be written in a book.”
Smallwood called in
Given this feedback, Pilgrim naturally phoned former premier Joey Smallwood, “because I wanted him to write it. He said he couldn’t, and I said who could, and he said, ‘You.’ I said I knew nothing about writing, so he said, ‘I’ll tell you the name of somebody who’ll set you straight, Cassie Brown.’”
So Pilgrim (who, from this anecdote, appears to have adopted Think Big as his manta) got in touch with the acclaimed editor of Death on the Ice and Standing Into Danger. “She told me what to do. I did the research, and sent her the manuscript, and she read it and said, ‘Get a publisher.’”
And what was the gist of Cassie Brown’s Writing 101? “She told me to take the story and research it (Pilgrim interviewed former rangers and delved thoroughly through their archives). And she said when I was writing the story to make sure I kept the reader in mind, I should make sure not to disappoint the reader.”
This simple advice has now fueled Pilgrim through half a dozen publications. His latest is The Ghost of Ellen Dower.
“I first heard the story when I was in Vancouver in the late ’50s. I was visiting a woman who was originally from Conche, and the story of Ellen Dower came up. It fascinated me.” For decades the tale stayed with him, a haunting mix of eerie quirks of nature, missing legal papers and mysterious family bloodlines that run back to ship-jumping pirates.
Ellen a beauty
Set over Christmas and the early spring of 1871-72, the book follows the busy and prosperous Dower family. Edward Dower was a fish captain and merchant; his wife Ellen a beauty and one of Conche’s most prominent community organizers. On Christmas Eve, as the family exchanges presents (Ellen receives a lambskin coat) and the children prepare for a square dance, all seems well. The village is thriving and the price for whitecoats is so good Edward and his brother have just bought a new vessel, The Elsie, to crew for the hunt. But some bad luck, bad weather and a bad memory are about to intervene.
The story of Ellen Dower’s ghost is well known, even, Pilgrim says, documented at the time. As a writer he blends supernatural elements — waking dreams, omens in frosted windows — with historical details that the Dowers, for example, rolled a hundred barrels of flour into storage every winter, half for them and half for any neighbours in need. It took him eight months to research; he estimates he interviewed 60 people. The writing took him six weeks.
“My wife and I go to our cabin for two weeks, and I write in the mornings, and I write in the afternoons,” Pilgrim says, explaining his usual work routine. “When I have 10 pages I read them to my wife. She passes her comments on it, and between us we decide which way to go.”
The pages come quickly. Pilgrim, who has also produced The Curse of the Red Cross Ring, The Captain and the Girl, and The Price Paid for Charley, says he aims for two books a year. And they most often germinate from a story someone tells him. The same goes for his upcoming book, The Day Grenfell Cried.
Although concerned with the genesis of fishing co-operatives, landmark judicial inquires and a former minister of fisheries being tossed in the slammer, the book started when Pilgrim chatted with a Mr. Boyd of Main Brook, who knew of Grenfell’s interest in the fishing industry.
Pilgrim is also hoping to write about a recent west coast murder, and the mishap of a Newfoundland Ranger who spent 53 days lost in the wilderness after parachuting out over Hawkes Bay.
“There’s always lots of material,” Pilgrim says.
For his own pleasure, Pilgrim likes to read non-fiction books about the Arctic, Arctic voyages, and history, especially war history of the first and second wars and the Falklands.
“And I’m definitely looking forward to Wayne Johnston’s The Navigator of New York, I think he’s a fascinating writer.
“And someone like Bernice Morgan is tremendous, I admire her. I read everything, almost, from Newfoundland authors.”
A cache Pilgrim is a prolific addition to The Ghost of Ellen Dower is published by Flanker Press.
J.M. Sullivan is a St. John’s-based freelance writer.