Sheilagh's Brush
a novel by Maura Hanrahan

Print: 978-1-926708-09-6
ePUB: 978-1-926708-35-5
PDF: 978-1-771330-17-6

170 Pages
September 01, 2010
Fiction All Titles Novel


Sheilagh's Brush a novel by Maura Hanrahan


Sheilagh’s Brush: spring equinox gale, prominent in Newfoundland culture and weather lore.

On the cusp of the Depression, Sheilagh Driscoll of isolated Rennie’s Bay nearly dies while giving birth prematurely to baby Leah. Sheilagh is attended by a traditional midwife, part Mi’kmaq, Mrs. Mary, as well as by Leah Clarke, a nurse-midwife from England. Baby Leah Mary survives but develops serious asthma, which requires treatment throughout her childhood. Traumatized by the birth, Sheilagh learns about age-old ways of preventing pregnancy. The result is an awakening that impacts on Sheila’s relationship with all the women around her, especially her younger sister Claire. || Informed by the occasional newspapers and magazines that make their way to Rennie’s Bay via sea-going schooners, Claire’s worldview contrasts sharply with Sheilagh’s. In contrast to Sheilagh’s acceptance of life in Rennie’s Bay, Claire reacts against it. Claire stumbles into a sexual relationship but sees relations with David—or any man—as a trap and tries to avoid him. She is not entirely successful and finds herself pregnant. Like her sister, she turns to Mrs. Mary for help.

"Sheilagh’s Brush is a deeply moving portrait of two Newfoundland sisters who face down work and weather and loss in order to finally embrace their lives. Maura Hanrahan writes powerfully of the pain and joy of motherhood and ultimately delivers a mighty portrait of women’s lives writ large across the blue of sea and sky. I read it in great gulps. "
—Erica Eisdorfer, author of The Wet Nurse’s Tale

"Maura Hanrahan crafts the sisters’ story as if she were there herself, weaving an accomplished and authentic tale of resilience in an isolated fishing community that hears only faintly the distant rumblings of WWII, rumours of faraway lands, and a sense of the increasing possibilities for women’s lives. When Maura’s remarkable brush blows a gale across this book’s landscape, everything is somehow both eternally the same and yet forever changed. A must read. "
—Dian Day, author of The Clock of Heaven

Maura Hanrahan is the author, co-author, or editor of ten books in several genres, including creative non-fiction, history, etc. Her writing has won awards in Canada, Britain and the U.S. She is a member of the Sip’kop Mi’kmaq Band. For about 14 years, she has been a self-employed consultant on Aboriginal issues and has worked mostly with Aboriginal organizations on health, education, land claims, and cultural survival issues. She lives in St. John’s with her husband, the novelist Paul Butler. She has won several book awards including: 2007 Good Read Novel Competition: Honourable Distinction for Sheilagh’s Brush (unpublished novel); 2005 History and Heritage Award for Tsunami: The Newfoundland Tidal Wave Disaster; short-listed, Rogers Cable Newfoundland and Labrador Book Award for Non-fiction for Tsunami: The Newfoundland Tidal Wave Disaster; and short-listed, History and Heritage Award for The Doryman.

"Dominion-era Rennie’s Bay, Newfoundland, is a town even the priest seems to have forgotten about. It is also a place where women live in a society as foreign to the men of the town as the Greek shores they visit. Maura Hanrahan, who returns to the historical vividness of her 2003 work, The Doryman, acts as anthropologist to this female society where men exist only on the margins. Sheilagh’s Brush follows the struggle between community life and individuality through two sisters. As they deal with disease, poverty, and the environment, Hanrahan offers an historian’s account without moralizing, leaving it to the reader to decide if there is a right and wrong way for women to be."
Telegraph-Journal, Saint John, New Brunswick

Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council featured project:

Maura Hanrahan to release her latest novel, Sheilagh's Brush

Home Town: St. John's
NLAC Program Funded Under: Professional Project Grants Program
Amount Funded: $1000 & $3000 (2004/2005); $2000 (2005/2006)

Maura Hanrahan's novel Sheilagh's Brush (Inanna Publications, Toronto) is due for release in early October. In 2007 Sheilagh's Brush, the unpublished novel, received an honourable distinction from the "Good Read" Fiction Book Competition in Greensboro, North Carolina, sponsored by A Woman's Write.

Due for release: Early October 2010
Newfoundland and Labrador launch: date TBD
Publisher: Inanna Publictions, Toronto
Price: $22.95
Contact: Maura Hanrahan
Phone: (709) 726-6656
Contact E-mail:
Publisher's website:

About Maura Hanrahan...

Maura Hanrahan

Sheilagh's Brush is Maura's 11th book; she has authored creative non-fiction, biography, history and academic books. Maura is also the author of over 400 articles in newspapers, magazines and academic journals. Her writing has won awards in Britain, the U.S., and Canada. She has an interdisciplinary Ph.D. from the London School of Economics and is a anthropological consultant on Aboriginal issues working across the country. She is married to the writer Paul Butler (Cupids, Hero) and they have a young daughter.

Synopsis of Sheilagh's Brush...

On the cusp of the Depression, Sheilagh Driscoll of isolated Rennie's Bay nearly dies while giving birth prematurely to baby Leah. The child survives but Sheilagh is traumatized by the birth and learns about age-old ways of preventing pregnancy. The result is an awakening that impacts on Sheilagh's relationship with all the women around her, especially her younger sister Claire. Informed by the occasional newspapers and magazines that make their way to Rennie's Bay via sea-going schooners, Claire's worldview contrasts sharply with Sheilagh's. Claire reacts against the claustrophobic outport. The ensuing conflict between the sisters sharpens through a moral crisis which threatens to tear their relationship apart.

Q and A with Maura Hanrahan...

NLAC: Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

MH: The women elders in my family – my late great-aunt Rachel and my late grandmother Angela from the South Coast of the island – had a big influence on me. Their vividly-told stories inspired me to write Tsunami and The Doryman and they appear in both these books. But they did not talk about their reproductive lives or their lives as women, at least not in the biological sense. I knew that Aunt Rachel had had two sets of twins, with only one of the four children living to adulthood, but that was about all I knew. This was a big omission and I was interested in it as a woman – every woman has to face her relationship with potential motherhood at some point in her life. It's an important part of the life cycle; even a nun has to decide she's passing on that part of her life. So because I had the interest but no information about women's reproductive lives for that time, I had to research it. What I discovered was fascinating and not at all what you'd expect.

So this story is not Rachel's or Angela's but it was, in a round-about way, inspired by them. The priest's shocking punishment of a character in Sheilagh's Brush is true, as told to me by my Aunt Bride, who is 91 now. The tuberculosis narrative in Sheilagh's Brush is also true. The rest is of the book is fiction based on what I found out and on my imagination.

NLAC: What is it about this era (pre-Depression rural Newfoundland and Labrador) and the lives of these women that appeals to you?

MH: I guess that time period interests me because that is when Rachel and Angela were in the prime of their lives, raising their many children, and that's the era in which most of the stories they told me are set. These were women with complex lives and personalities, dealing as best they could with what life meted out to them. And, like women in most places, they are mainly overlooked and not celebrated in song, literature or drama.

Winterton Boat Building Museum, Laying codfish on the flake to dry, Winterton, Newfoundland, [ca. 1900]

This photograph from the Winterton Boat Building Museum captures something of the women who inspired me. This young woman is doing back-breaking work but she's engaged with the photographer and you can't help imagining her life.

The Depression itself spurred on enormous change all over the world, not just here, and people were in flux. I believe that crises bring you closer to yourself, they strip you down to the essentials, so it's a good era to place a story in.

NLAC: The synopsis above gives us an idea about the story – what else can you tell us; what is this book about?

MH: I hope this doesn't sound too grandiose but it's about life and love. It's about whether or not we have choices and what kinds of choices we have in life, whether and how we're constrained, and to what degree we have control over these constraints, especially as women.

People who have read the manuscript said they cared about the characters and they really wanted to know what happened to them. This was thrilling to hear.

NLAC: How do you feel now that it's about to be published?

MH: I feel a bit nervous and, after all this time, quite excited. It's a novel, number one, which is new for me, and I expect it might be controversial in some quarters. It explores women's lives in a way that isn't done that often, at least not this close to the bone and not in literature based in Newfoundland and Labrador. Helen Porter did it in January, February, June or July, way back around 1990 and she was brave to do it. She's one of the trailblazers for me and other women who write in this vein.

And the book is being launched first in Toronto on November 4th at the Toronto Women's Bookstore, which has just re-opened, so I want that launch to go well and for all involved to be pleased with the result.

I'm optimistic, too, as I always am; I enjoy every aspect of the process. I've been told the story is real and open and raw and honest and I think this is a fair assessment. It needed to be written.

NLAC: It's being published by Inanna Publications of Toronto. Tell us briefly who they are, and how your relationship with them came about.

MH: Inanna is a women's literary press in Toronto associated with York University. They have a fiction and poetry series and I've loved working with them, especially editor Luciana Riccutelli-Costa. I feel like they're 100% behind the book and that they understand it completely, which means a lot to me.

Some years ago when I was working on early drafts of Sheilagh's Brush, I saw an ad of theirs in Herizons, a feminist magazine based in Winnipeg and I thought they'd be the perfect fit for this book. I regularly publish in academic journals to keep up my credentials as an expert on Aboriginal issues in Canada. I wrote an article about Maliseet culture for the journal Canadian Woman Studies, published by Inanna, and this was subsequently included in an anthology they did called First Voices: An Aboriginal Women's Reader. So by the time Sheilagh's Brush was ready, I already had a relationship with Inanna and they were interested in my book proposal.

NLAC: You received three NLAC grants for this book. Tell us a bit about the timelines and practicalities of writing a novel like this.

MH: It took me seven years to write Sheilagh's Brush. When I started the actual writing, I had nothing mapped out and the spirit, if you like, took over. The words just flooded onto the page. This happened with each draft, and there were many. It felt like it was coming from somewhere bigger than me, which is the feeling you have when you are immersed in a subject.

The practicalities were, as always with writing, a problem. Like so many artists, I have a whole other, largely unrelated, work life and I write in my spare time.

I do appreciate the hard work of NLAC staff, directors and jurors, but if government is going to continue capitalizing on its support for the arts, it has to make that support real, tangible and useful and not have artists begging for crumbs, which is the case now. The grants helped me buy time to write, but it was limited time, a fraction of the time I subsidized with my own money. I've been on the NLAC jury and have seen good work for which there were no funds. Opportunity denied translates into talent wasted.

NLAC: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

MH: I'm so glad that I was able to complete Sheilagh's Brush. I came to love Sheilagh and Claire, as flawed as they are (like us all), and their story is one that means a great deal to me.

Weekend Arts Magazine, hosted by Angela Antle, CBC Radio One
Weekend AM October 16-17, 2010 Interview with Maura Hanrahan, author of Sheilagh's Brush

Putting an Axe under a Bed, passing children through trees branches and ceasign to breastfeed at 9 months lest the milk become poison...those practises were in use in parts of Newfoundland well into the 20th century. That's what Maura Hanrahan found out when she started to research reproductive health of outport women The research inspired her to write a novel she called Sheilagh's Brush.

Angela Antle of CBC Radio's Weekend Arts Magazine (NL province-wide) featured an interview with Maura Hanrahan on Saturday, October 16, 2010. You can hear that interview on their website: <>.

FEBRUARY 22, 2011

Maura Hanrahan on birth, artists & culture
Our Toronto correspondent Hans Rollmann catches up with Maura Hanrahan on her new book, 'Sheilagh's Brush', and they chat on birthing babies, politicizing artists and representations of culture

By: Hans Rollmann

What do tsunamis, medieval mystics and the usage of salt pork in Newfoundland have in common?

Maura Hanrahan, that's what.

The multi-faceted Newfoundland author has already produced a wide range of work covering all these subjects and more. Now she can add midwives and the reproductive lives of Newfoundland women to the list. The industrious writer's eleventh book was released late last year, and we caught up with her at the Toronto launch to discuss her work, her reflections on our culture, and her advice for aspiring artists at this unique juncture in Newfoundland and Labrador's history.

Painting a picture of women's lives

It's not the first time a novel of women's lives in Depression-era Newfoundland has been written, but what distinguishes Sheilagh's Brush is the vivid richness of the stories it contains. Hanrahan drew on stories she heard as a child from her great-aunt and grandmother who grew up on the south coast of the island. The story's central narrative is fictional, but many of the background incidents reflect stories she heard as a child. Although she inherited much of their history and knowledge, one notable gap they did not pass on to her was any recollection of their reproductive lives.

"I didn't have that information passed on to me, so I wanted to fill that gap," Hanrahan explains.

Growing up amidst her great-aunts' rich storytelling, she was haunted by the question of how she would have reacted, had it been her growing up in those times.

"I always wondered growing up, if I was born in that community, what would I have done? It was remote, especially for women, with no opportunities…I don't think I would have been very content to live my whole life in that community, living a traditional life. I always wondered about that, and felt an almost claustrophobic feeling coming out of me. Yet at the same time I'm very attracted to rural Newfoundland, have a lot of respect for the people, and I'm amazed by the stories I have from that era from these women. So there's kind of a push-pull thing going on there…"

Unraveling a complex society

This ambiguity is reflected in the book's central characters, with one sister content to live her life in the outport, and the other sister–full of questions unanswered and challenges unmet–unhappy and yearning for something different. Needless to say, the audience at the launch is intrigued at the prospect of growing up in such a setting, which they quickly take to describing as isolated.

But Hanrahan makes them re-think their assumptions. She points out Newfoundlanders were some of the most travelled people in the world, albeit according to a very gendered pattern. While men sailed their boats to ports from one end of the globe to the other, often women's only opportunity lay in going 'in-service' as housekeepers and child-minders to wealthy families in Canada, the US, Europe, or farther afield.

Still, the desire to explore was not born with airplanes and globalization, but holds to far deeper roots. She quotes Newfoundland parliamentarian Robert Parsons: "How can you say Newfoundland is isolated? Our Argosies [boats] whiten every sea…"

"I've become quite politicized about the lack of support for the arts in this country and in this province." –Maura Hanrahan

Hanrahan's sociological background serves her well. Her particular talent lies in seizing on the minutiae of everyday life depicted in the historical record, and using that to paint a complex picture of class and social difference, woven into the wonder of deeply compelling narratives and characters.

She honed this technique with her recent bestselling novel Tsunami, drawing even on insurance claim records in her research to paint a picture of the lives of Newfoundlanders struck by the tragedy of the 1929 tsunami on the Burin Peninsula. Sheilagh's Brush draws on the same strong research skills to provide an equally powerful story of women's reproductive lives in early twentieth-century Newfoundland.

Hanrahan doesn't just have stories to tell, she has opinions to share. And one of those opinions is clearly articulated against the backdrop of Newfoundland and Labrador's recent economic boom. In an era defined by the province's new-found courage to stand up and demand 'our fair share', she's not afraid to call on the arts community to demand its 'fair share' of that collective 'fair share'.

"I've become quite politicized about the lack of support for the arts in this country and in this province," she says. "I see our provincial government making a lot of hay about our arts community, while the support is minimal."

She's the recipient of much-appreciated grants, but considers her books more a gift to the people of the province–a contribution back to the land that endowed her with such depth of experience and imagination–since it's virtually impossible for a writer to make a living out of it. In her own case, she's forged a variety of daytime careers, from professor to consultant for aboriginal organizations, conducting research for land claims across Canada. She notes her previous book Tsunami was a repeat bestseller, and even that didn't provide enough income to live on.

"It's not unique to Newfoundland," she's quick to emphasize. "But what bothers me about Newfoundland is the way the province just crows about the arts, and uses artists to market the province, yet has very little support for artists despite that."

A Story-Telling Culture

Despite the challenges of the writer's life, it's an unmistakable fact that plenty of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians–like Hanrahan–pursue it with an almost obsessive need to write. The shelves of local books filling downtown shops and the string of new releases advertized on Facebook underscore a culture that seems devoted to chronicling itself in dramatic flourishes of the pen. I asked Hanrahan whether there was something special about Newfoundland and Labrador that inspires this zealous drive to pen our stories.

"For so long ours was an oral culture," she muses. "I was going to school in the 1970s and that was when I first heard of Cassie Brown's book 'Death on the Ice'. And I was astounded that a Newfoundlander could write a book. It blew my mind. Couldn't believe it! And here she was a woman. So that's how much it has changed. But we were an oral culture, so when we moved into being a written culture, it seems to have happened very, very rapidly. I mean, prior to Cassie Brown we had Harold Horwood, Margaret Duley–a lot of people don't know about her–EJ Pratt, maybe a handful of other writers, and now as you say book signings are so commonplace that nobody goes to them anymore. I guess when we moved from oral to written, we really REALLY moved to it…it's like there is a drive to write everything down."

Future plans?

Hanrahan plans to stay in Newfoundland, where she has a husband and young daughter. One of her upcoming projects includes an updated biography of Bob Bartlett.

"There's no modern biography of him," she observes. "He's such a heroic figure in Newfoundland culture, but I want to look at him as a real person and see what was really going on there, what was motivating this guy, who was he. Let's get past the heroics. So I'm working on that now."

Like any good writer, though, her craft is part of her life, and of her dream for what the creative arts can offer to Newfoundland and Labrador's future.

"I'd like to see the arts community more politicized, becoming more politicized about the status of the artist and about representations of our history and culture," she emphasizes once more, just for good measure. "I'd like to see us mature as artists – to move away from the court jester antics of Rick Mercer and 22 Minutes. As artists who don't just have a laugh with the elites.

"I'm not a Newfoundland nationalist and I don't believe art should celebrate cultures, though it can celebrate moments. Sometimes there's pressure to celebrate who we are – or who we think we are – as a people, but art and artists have a role to critique, to criticize, to make the invisible visible."

Reprinted here with permission.

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