Seldom: A Family Memoir

McClelland & Stewart, 2002
Arcade, 2002 (U.S.)
Hodder Headline, 2003 (U.K.)

And then the time changes to the eternal present as it does when he beats her, and she is always being hit and he will never stop. She prays for death; hers, his, both

She doesn’t know how she gets to the house. She doesn’t remember anything. Ede has her hands in a basin of warm water and she shrieks and shrieks and shrieks, for the pain of the water is worse than the pain of the wood. Ede asks her twice if she’ll have some supper, she can sneak it up when he isn’t looking—Ede tells her that the next day, I asked you twice, muffin, you were white as a sheet except for your hands, the blood in the basin, on the floor, on your coat, I thought you’d die—and twice Marion says yes, supper, he said no supper, straight to bed, Ede tells her that too the next day, and then she vomits again, faints to the floor

Mom is leaning over her now, she is in her bed and Mom leans in and her smell is good and her hair is good and Mom will save her and they will die and leave this place together, they’ll gather the boys and leave and Ede too, and they’ll all be no more and they’ll all be safe

Marion, Marion, Mom says, her voice a distant lullaby, did Daddy hit you on the head? Did he hit you on the head too? And Mom’s good hands in her hair, checking can she still talk will she walk again is she all right in the head or has he smashed that too, split, cracked, shattered, burst, collapsed

And Mom’s good hands then on her dead ones, bloated, swollen dead fish hands in ribbons, bleeding on the bed clothes even now and Mom’s good hands touch hers and she screams again, the pain

So will I save you, and ye shall be a blessing: fear not, but let your hands be strong Mom is saying it, it’s some Bible verse, and Mom’s crying, saying it and crying like it can’t be true

Sidney Wiseman, a prosperous skipper, and Ethel Wellon, a former teacher, were married in the Newfoundland outport of Seldom-Come-By in 1922 and went on to have 6 children; Marion was their third. In Little Bay Islands where the family lived, everybody knew everyone else’s private affairs: whose son or father had been lost at sea; whose pregnancy was seen to; whose brother had gone to the hospital in Twillingate for his “weak lungs.” But none knew—or chose to know—just what was going on in Ethel and Sidney’s house. None except the children. For long months each year when their father was home from the sea, he lay on a daybed in the kitchen like a serpent, watching, forever watching his wife and children, waiting for an excuse to strike out.

Sidney and Ethel Wiseman were Dawn Rae Downton’s grandparents—her mother Marion’s parents. They lived in a close-knit community at once succoured and brutalized by the cold, capricious ocean. In Seldom, the granddaughter recreates their story. This is a portrait of an isolated Newfoundland outport in the first half of the 20th century when the coastal boats made it through the ice only a few months a year, and when a man’s home was still his castle.

Dawn Rae takes readers along Little Bay Islands’ wharfs and coves, crafting her narrative from a kaleidoscope of intimate, revealing incidents, from whispers and glances, from the secrets and lies that protected the Wisemans’ reputation and blighted their lives. Here is an intimate, frightening look at a time and a people so acquainted with grief that for them life was ultimately more mysterious than death.

Seldom was shortlisted for the 2003 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction.

What the reviewers said:
One of the best books of the year
The Editors at Amazon

Writing to savour
Globe and Mail

So vividly imagined it’s easy to forget that it is a true story. . . . Rarely is family history so beautifully written and so emotionally true
Edmonton Journal

Just as the best novels seem drawn from real life, the best memoirs read like chart-topping fiction

They’re already calling this a new CanLit classic
Book City

A darkly atmospheric family memoir

Complicated and ambitious
Globe and Mail

A wrenching tale…lyrical, but also as forceful as a January outport storm. [Downton] conveys the beauty as well as the stark pain of these lives
Halifax Chronicle-Herald

Gifted, sensitive prose

A triumph of the literary imagination—a testament to the writer’s capacity for creative, conscientious guesswork. With an ear for the rugged lilt of Depression-era Newfoundland English and an eye for the unforgiving corners of the landscape, Downton brings the place as well as its people to life. The real life characters she recreates are pitch perfect
Montreal Gazette

A memorable portrait
Kirkus Reviews

Compelling…. Evocative storytelling…. Downton tells her story in delicious waves of detail and description, uncovering and then recovering the secrets of the family like the rising and falling tide
Quill & Quire

Words seem to vibrate off the page … with an urgency and immediacy that transforms what could have been a standard family memoir into a riveting, novelistic page-turner

An Angela’s Ashes for Newfoundland
Montreal Mirror

Unique in its perspective and geography.... [Downton's] graceful writing exudes a sense of foreboding
Publishers Weekly

A book to read slowly and savor, this is a tale of hardship but also of familial love and strength, and in this regard it is reminiscent of the fiction of another Canadian writer, Alistair MacLeod. Highly recommended
Library Journal

About the book:

Why my mom gives Shipping News two thumbs down
“They might all have tried speaking less Hallmark”
Globe and Mail, 11 Jan 02

Rejection queen: Dawn Rae Downton survives Newfoundland and 136 snubs to publish Seldom
Montreal Mirror, 18 April 2002

Ghost sat next to author
Joel Yanofsky, Montreal Gazette, 13 April 2002

Seldom was heard an encouraging word
Philip Marchand, Toronto Star, 14 May 2002

Seek Solace in Seldom
Halifax Chronicle Herald, 28 April 2002

Terrible tales true: author
St. John’s Evening Telegram, 26 May 2002