Field Notes Summer 2020

When I returned to visit the East Coast in 2002, for the first time in over ten years, my parents finally owned their own summer house on Pugwash Point near the end of the dead-end road.

That spring and summer, as I transitioned from life in Vancouver to life in rural Nova Scotia, walking on the wind-swept beach at the end of the road became an important daily ritual for me. To get to the beach, I had to cross a corner of the property that was right on the point. There was a ramshackle cottage hidden behind the trees, but I wasn’t interested in checking it out; all I wanted was my long walk on the shore.

We sold our house in 2011 so I missed the transition of that property on the point from wild and rackety to tidied up and winterized. Now hidden behind the trees is a new, all-season home owned and inhabited by the grandson of the original property owner, whose wife happens to be a novelist.

Retired for over a year now, Jean Mills wrote her latest novel for young adults, Larkin On the Shore, in that house and says the setting was the catalyst that made the story come alive for her.

She’d had the character, 15-year-old Larkin, in her head for years, but she couldn’t make her original story for the character work out.

“Being here, year after year, and seeing how healing this place is, how soothing, how positive it is to be out there on the shore, I thought maybe I could take that girl, plop her here for a summer and heal her,” Jean told me as we sat at her dining room with its view of the Northumberland Strait.

In the novel, Larkin comes to “Tuttle Harbour” to spend the summer with her grandmother.

“At low tide, there’s really nothing between you and Prince Edward Island,” Jean said. “The book opens with Larkin sitting on the beach thinking she could get up and walk across the sandbars and just never stop. Just go into the water and keep going, because anything has to be better than this.”

‘This’ is what the novel explores: escaping and accepting and healing. One of the characters who helps Larkin out of her dark place lives in the old house on the hill. It’s delightful having my family’s former summer home worked into the story because I know what Jean means when she describes that space as healing. That’s how it felt to me when, like Larkin, I landed on the point with my pain and loss and a desperate need to find myself again.

Having lived in urban Ontario her whole life, it wasn’t until she met her future husband and visited his family’s rustic cottage on the Point in 1980 that she fell in love with rural Nova Scotia. Having written her first novel at the dining room table of their home in Guelph, Jean believes the Point actually makes her a better writer.

“I do a tonne of writing in my head before my fingers ever hit the keyboard,” she explained, “so I do a lot of my writing on the shore, walking up and down. I walk at home but it’s not the same; the sounds are different. This is uniquely perfect for me to write. It’s a wonderful place, a special place for me.”

Like many of us who discover Nova Scotia after being born and raised elsewhere, Jean said she must have sea in her roots somewhere because of the way it calls to her.

“We all know what it’s like to walk around with our heads full of thoughts, worries and troubles. When you get here, there’s something about the sound and sight of the water, something gets into you and your brain that is very primal. It lifts you out of the dark places. It works for me, and I’ve seen it work for other people too. It’s very restorative.”

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Sara Jewell admits that she related to this story of the quilt blocks in a weird way when she wrote about the topic of her Field Notes column. “If my friends sent me a pile of quilt blocks, I’d have no idea what to do with them!” All joking aside, since she has no skills with needles or textiles, Sara truly appreciates the tradition and the creativity of fibre arts, and was delighted to explore them as works of art.