The Second Coming of Sterling Silver
In the 1970s, during the darkest days of my life, I found myself considering suicide – and then I learned that a dear friend had just done it. The shock of that discovery put an end to my own thoughts of suicide, but my intimate understanding of how one might choose to do such a thing led me to write a very personal essay about suicide called “In the Spiral.” I never published it, but 20 years later, in 1994, my publisher, Ron Caplan, was putting together a book of my shorter works, and he ran across a copy of the essay in my archive. He used it as the lead-off piece in a collection called Sterling Silver: Rants, Raves and Revelations. I wasn’t happy about it, but Ron was convinced that the essay was important.
And he was right. Years later, the story apparently saved another man’s life. An unsigned letter with a Halifax postmark told me about 19 months of agony as my anonymous correspondent’s marriage came apart, and he was forced to confront, in harrowing detail, day after day, his own responsibility for the near-destruction of his enviable life. The experience brought him to the brink of suicide.
“I have clung to your book like a friend,” he wrote. “A last minute reading and re-reading of your article ‘In the Spiral’ has found its way to give me hope and understanding for my flaws, my errors, and to go forward and be the person I want to be… Thank you! Thank you!”
Writers never know where their words may travel, and what impact they may have.
At first I didn’t like Ron`s other choices very much either — I thought they were too personal, too focused on me — but in this 25th anniversary re-issue, I like them a lot better. There are funny pieces here, some of which are meditations on rural life in Cape Breton. Ambrose Pottie winches his house onto a raft made of oil tanks, and tows it across the bay to a new location. New Waterford moonshiners share their trade secrets, and my buddy Claude Poirier gives my crumbling Volvo another two years of life by patching its holes with pop rivets, ductwork and philosophy. Ron included a piece on Cape Breton fiddling, and also my account of serving as a volunteer firefighter.
Sterling Silver follows me as I travel with the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra, and spend a month in 1976 touring China with The Men of the Deeps. The collection includes “Snapshot: The Third Drunk,” the best short story I ever wrote, and also my award-winning article on Farley Mowat, who was then in mid-career. There’s a graduation address to the students of what was then the University College of Cape Breton, now Cape Breton University, where today I am the Farley Mowat Chair in Environment. Sterling Silver even includes a seditious essay in response to the election of Rene Levesque in 1976; if Quebec secedes, I argue, the Maritimes — for whom Confederation has been a catastrophe — should also declare independence.
So I look at the book now, after 25 years, and I think: Ron Caplan is really a damn good editor. Sterling Silver comes from a fascinating period in my life; it has its own charm and flavour, and those qualities come from Ron’s choices.
Welcome home, little book. It’s good to have you back.