Herb Curtis

Herb CurtisPhoto: Memories of Blackville website
Herb Curtis
Photo: Memories of Blackville website

Herb Curtis (novelist, short-story writer, and humourist) was born 23 December 1949 in Keenan Siding, a small settlement located on the Miramichi River a few kilometres south of Blackville, New Brunswick. The youngest of five children (including brother Wayne Curtis, also a novelist and short-story writer), Curtis was the son of Brycie (née Coughlan) and John Curtis, both originally from nearby Miramichi communities. A fourth-generation inhabitant of the Miramichi, John divided his time between guiding on the river, farming, storekeeping, outfitting, and working in the woods.

Curtis went to a one-room schoolhouse in Keenan Siding for the first six years of his education and then attended Blackville Rural High School for several years before leaving school to guide and work in the woods. Though he had been an avid reader from childhood (Twain and Dickens being two of his favourite authors), it was as a teenager that he decided to make a serious attempt at writing fiction himself.

At the age of eighteen, Curtis moved to Fredericton, New Brunswick, where he still lives. He was introduced as an aspiring author to Alden Nowlan, then writer-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick, and was advised by the poet not to publish his work until he was sure it was ready. For the next twenty years, he continued to dabble in fiction while working for much of this time at the Lord Beaverbrook Hotel as a bartender, bellhop, bouncer, and jack-of-all-trades. In the late 1970s, Curtis and a partner formed the musical-comedy act “Shadrack and Dryfly,” which played at the Lord Beaverbrook Hotel on Saturday nights.

In the late 1980s, Curtis left his job at the Lord Beaverbrook Hotel to pursue his writing full time. Shadrack Nash and Dryfly Ramsey became the central characters of his first novel, The Americans are Coming, which was published in 1989 and which received a largely positive critical response. It was the first volume in what came to be known as the Brennan Siding Trilogy, which includes The Last Tasmanian (1991; winner of the 1992 Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award and shortlisted for the 1992 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Canada and the Caribbean) and The Lone Angler (1993). The trilogy was followed by another novel (The Silent Partner [1996]) as well as humorous short fiction (Hoofprints on the Sheet [1993] and Luther Corhern’s Salmon Camp Chronicles [1999], which was nominated for the Stephen Leacock Award). Curtis also ventured into non-fiction with the publication of The Scholten Story (1996), which recounts the history of one of New Brunswick's most successful immigrant families from Holland. Two of Curtis's novels have been adapted for Theatre New Brunswick's stage: The Americans are Coming (1997), whose script was co-authored by Curtis, and The Last Tasmanian (1999).

All of Curtis’s fiction is infused with the presence of the Miramichi and Dungarvon rivers. The rivers are less a unifying theme in his novels than pervasive characters whose moods and subtle signs are the subject of constant concern and conversation among the residents of the small riverside hamlets, like Brennan Siding and Silver Rapids, in which Curtis’s fiction is set.

Curtis is best known for his Brennan Siding Trilogy. With their gentle, folksy humor and dialect, these novels about three boys coming of age in a poor, close-knit backwater have been likened to the fiction of Mark Twain (Heath 156; Hickey 32), Garrison Keillor (Barclay 51), and even Charles Dickens (Barclay 51). Curtis’s use of a “rustic chorus”—a collection of minor characters who offer periodic context, commentary, and comic relief—also bears resemblance to the early novels of Thomas Hardy. Like Hardy, Curtis resists stereotyping the members of his rustic chorus. Lindon Tucker, Bert Todder, and other minor characters who appear in several of the novels and stories are carefully drawn as unique individuals with their own lives, foibles, and distinctive forms of expression.

Curtis’s fiction also has a darker side, however. A mysterious and far from benign presence haunts Brennan Siding, giving rise to a rich collection of local myths and superstitions. While some of these superstitions are patently absurd and eventually debunked, others linger to create the strong current of unease that belies the levity of the novels. Curtis’s strategy of inserting surreal events and fantastical beings, such as ghosts and devils, into an otherwise highly realistic narrative has prompted at least one critic to suggest that his fiction may be “a Canadian version of magic realism” (Fabiani 42). Whatever it is, the presence of this element in his novels warrants further study.

Adding to this foreboding is the pervasive theme of change. In the Brennan Siding Trilogy in particular, Curtis confronts head-on, and with neither sentimentality nor outrage, the serious consequences of encroaching Americans for the insular Miramichi region, the potential loss of the salmon due to greed and environmental degradation, and the erosion of local culture. His fiction is noteworthy not only because it offers a faithful portrait of life in rural New Brunswick communities but also because it dramatizes the factors that are precipitating the rapid decline of the province’s small towns—a decline rendered poignantly when Corry Quinn, the protagonist of The Silent Partner, stumbles upon an all but abandoned and decaying Brennan Siding.

Curtis’s fiction has had a largely positive reception. The consensus, even among critics who describe his prose as “uneven” (Hickey 32), is that he is a gifted, unaffected storyteller who creates a small world and cast of characters for whom readers feel genuine affection. The re-release of the Brennan Siding trilogy as a single volume (1997) and the more recent release of a reader’s guide edition of The Americans are Coming (2008) speak to the enduring appeal of his work among Canadian readers.

Curtis continues to write fiction and returns regularly to the Curtis homestead, where he still occasionally serves as a guide on the Miramichi River.

Ellen Rose, Winter 2009
University of New Brunswick

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Curtis, Herb. The Americans are Coming. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions, 1989.

---. The Brennan Siding Trilogy. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions, 1997.

---. “The Early Years” and “Afterward.” Bruno Bobak: The Full Palette. Ed. Bernard Riorden. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions and the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, 2006. 17-24 and 151-158.

---. Hoofprints on the Sheet: New Brunswick Short Stories. Fredericton, NB: Non-Entity Press, 1993.

---. The Last Tasmanian. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions, 1991.

---. The Lone Angler. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions, 1993.

---. Look What the Cat Drug In! Miramichi Dictionary. Fredericton, NB: Non-Entity Press, 1990.

---. Luther Corhern’s Salmon Camp Chronicles. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions, 1999.

---. “The River Runs Through Him.” Coast Life: Atlantic Canada at its Best (Aug. 2000): 32-34.

---. The Scholten Story. Oromocto, NB: Scholten Foundation, 1996.

---. The Silent Partner. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions, 1996.

---. Slow Men Working in Trees: Fredericton Dictionary. Fredericton, NB: Non-Entity Press, 1991.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Barclay, Pat. Rev. of The Last Tasmanian. Books in Canada 21.1 (1992): 51.

Fabiani, Louise. Rev. of The Lone Angler. Books in Canada 20.1 (1994): 42.

Heath, Tim. “Home Places.” Rev. of The Lone Angler. Canadian Literature 147 (1995): 155-57.

Hickey, Kathleen. Rev. of The Lone Angler. Quill & Quire 59.11 (1993): 32.

James-French, Dayv. Rev. of The Americans are Coming. Books in Canada 19.1 (1990): 48.

Little, Marilee. “Curtis, Dryfly and the River.” The Atlantic Provinces Book Review 19.1 (1992): 10.

Mathews, Lawrence. “Two Solitudes.” Rev. of The Silent Partner. Canadian Literature 151 (1998): 132-34.

McLeod, Sharon. “A Slice of Life on the Miramichi.” Rev. of The Last Tasmanian. The Halifax Daily News 9 Aug. 1992: 42.

Watson, Dianne. “Secrets.” Rev. of The Americans are Coming. Canadian Literature 135 (1992): 185-86.