LISTENING FOR THE DEAD BELLS – MARIAN BRUCE

This book came to my attention when Professor Laurie brought it in one of her lecture classes last semester. I was tempted to read it because of its scary yet attractive title referring to the “death” and the “island.” At that time, we discussed an island’s theme as a mysterious space makes inspirations of a utopia or a sorrowful place in the world of literature. In this theme, the Islands are always a lure for someone like me who craves to be bounded, not by physical borders but by the myths and legends, so this book seems to satisfy my need.

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I first thought it was horror fiction or any similar genre, but it turned out not even close. If I need to describe, it is a right combination of both documentaries about supernatural forces and Marian’s self-diary on how those communal stories frame her childhoods on PEI. The feeling when I was reading this book was hard to tell in words; it’s something as close as a grandmother’s warm and serious voice on fairy tales. On the other of the spectrum, even though most stories happened a few hundred years ago,  they appeared so real, like news that is just happening in town this week. In this book, Bruce purposely shared her origins of the Gaelic-speaking community of Presbyterians whose ancestors relocated from Scotland in the late 18th and 19th centuries to our island. Their movement has shaped the biggest ethnic group on PEI, and they also brought the supernatural belief with them as treasures from Scotland. These beliefs are told as the sign of deaths that could occur in many forms, and the legends of heaven and devils, both divided into two schools of thoughts: one is the optimistic preparation for the end as next life such as forerunners, sounds of bells with a more pleasurable tone of voice in the first half chapters while the other accentuates the fear of these ominous actions such as witches’ tricks, dangerous lights, bleeding corpse and animals’ symptoms through the rest of her book.

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What fantastic about the book is the diverse stories, rational tones of voice, and the author’s neutral evaluation of these beliefs. Bruce collected such an assorted collection of stories in her book, almost anything an islander could imagine talking about their island’ horrors. She started with a few traditional signs of deaths, such as the bell sounds, the forerunner signs to seers’ ability. Unexpectedly, her mother and neighborhood calmly look at these signs on as lessons for their children from generation to generation. They call it a sign of being prepared. These are traditions that are accepted as a part of the community on the island at that time. Bruce also inspired readers by her tones throughout the books.  I mentioned at the beginning that the title was scary and attracted me. However, there is no fearful thought coming to my mind any time during my reading because she excellently embedded the documentaries characters in these stories.  The content under her tones is just sufficiently academic and fictitious, making me immerse into these stories and regard them as commonly happened.

Listening for the Dead Bells - Nimbus Publishing and Vagrant Press

If anything could confuse readers about this book, it is the speed of narrating the stories. Bruce impatiently told the stories too fast forward to blend with her thoughts and quickly come to the next. I also wish there were stronger and more flawless connections among these stories, which I believe could be terrifyingly interesting, and how they impacted these settlers’ unique culture on PEI. Still, I appreciate her claim that the stories telling are a part of the island treasures. Sadly, it has faded out in modern times, not even in shows or performance anymore.

À mon avis, “Listening to the Death Bells”  is a fantastic collection of stories for those who seek to understand the roots of the supernatural belief and traditional customs of the settlers from Scotland to Prince Edward Island in the 18th  and 19th centuries. These beliefs could be seen as superstitious practices these days; however, they remain the essence of this community’s culture and identity. Storytelling could be different from place to place. Still, the signs, tricks and beliefs, even scary, solidify the island community’s origins and identity. In my opinion, the Islandness romanticism is probably shaped by many settling communities, such as these, and it becomes more imaginary when transferred from island to island. Isn’t it impressive to know a story or two with their origins from the other side of the world and tell it to folks as an islander?

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