Halifax author tackles notorious tale of N.S. family in new novel

·5 min read

Halifax author Becca Babcock's first novel, "One Who Has Been Here Before," is part of a recent resurgence of Atlantic gothic writing that subverts the region's idyllic image to tackle darker parts of the past.

And in this case she has chosen a particularly sombre chapter, inspired by a real-life tale that is still remembered in the province, decades after it made headlines.

“My main character goes on a quest for a ghost story,” Babcock said in a recent interview. “That's not what she finds, but that's her quest.”

Her book follows the journey of a sharp but anxious protagonist as she researches the lives of a long-gone family on Nova Scotia's south shore. In promotional materials, the story is described as drawing inspiration from "the true story of the notorious Goler clan of Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley."

In 1984, several members of the Goler family and other adults, who for generations had lived isolated from other communities in the Annapolis Valley, were found guilty of a variety of sexual offences against children as young as six years old.

It was discovered that members of the family had incestuous relationships for decades as they lived in the hills outside Kentville, N.S.

Babcock said she’d first heard the story as a campfire tale, but with her new novel, she wanted to take a more thoughtful view of the family’s circumstances as she explored gothic themes in her fictionalized version.

“Canadian gothic and Atlantic gothic, they're not horror stories," she said. "They are both filled with stories of deep humanity and compassion, and I hope that I'm writing within that tradition."

Whitney Moran, the managing editor at the book’s Halifax-based publisher, Nimbus Publishing, said she had a particular interest in Babcock’s work after recently working to get a non-fiction book about the Golers back into print. "On South Mountain: The Dark Secrets of the Goler Clan," by David Cruise and Alison Griffiths, was published in 1997 but had been out of print before Moran brought out a 20th anniversary edition.

Moran said in a recent interview that Babcock's novel looks at part of the region’s unsavoury history through an empathetic lens.

“We're at a period of reckoning with our past," Moran said of Nova Scotia, “and I think if you were to look at the books that came out a few decades ago, it might've been very much more 'Look at this postcard-perfect place.' Now we're able to start looking at our identity in a more complex way, where we're not just these things everyone thinks we are.”

Some of the key elements of the gothic genre, including a sense of mystery, conflict and darkness, shroud Babcock’s main character, Emma G. Weaver, as her research reveals that the lives of long-dead members of the fictional Gaugin family are irrevocably entangled with the lives of the living, including her own.

“Those gothic elements have always been part of the Atlantic Canadian literary tradition," said Alexander MacLeod, a professor in the English department at Saint Mary’s University. “And yes, they seem to be surging around us right now.”

MacLeod, son of the late Canadian novelist Alistair MacLeod, said that the sub-genre of Atlantic gothic is gaining traction now much in the same way the works of writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley did in the 19th century as they tapped into “something kind of psychoanalytic" in their work.

“Atlantic Canada has a lot of buried history, and a lot of that history is very violent. It's coded with sexuality, it's coded with ethnic conflict and certainly gendered conflict,” MacLeod said. “As we start to see in the contemporary world, submerged narratives from under-represented voices starting to get the attention they deserve, Atlantic Canada has tons of those stories.”

Babcock says she wrestled with worries the novel would dust off a distant episode and expose members of the Goler family to more attention that could be harmful.

The concern was shared by Stephen Mattson, a former lawyer who represented some of the adults on trial during the case in the 1980s. Mattson said the coverage of the initial trial painted an unflattering picture of the family and their circumstances, while the national attention it received fed certain "hillbilly" stereotypes about Nova Scotians as a whole.

He said, however, the family members and others who were involved in the trial were people who did the best they could with little education and few resources, living apart from the rest of society. He worries that bringing more light to the case could result in a re-victimization.

"The only people who are going to be harmed by this are children that are sons and daughters of the alleged victims," he said in an interview, adding: "It's not going to help the family any, and I doubt it's going to give us any real elucidation of issues either."

But Babcock, who grew up in rural Alberta and moved to Nova Scotia for university, said her novel attempts to show the Goler family's story is not unique.

"I think that's true of any rural area ... that individuals or families, for whatever reason, just choose not to participate in the social life of the town or community and they can very quickly become ostracized, become legendary," she said.

Her hope, however, is that readers look at the novel with a sense of compassion as the story of the family's crimes — and the circumstances that led to them — unfold.

“Some of the stories that most need to be told here in this area are stories about loss and displacement and dispossession,” Babcock said. “Really those are ghost stories in the truest sense in that we are, and we should be, haunted by our past.”

"One Who Has Been Here Before" was published this week.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 21, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Danielle Edwards, The Canadian Press