BOOKS: Over the Side, Mickey

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 1999:

Over the Side, Mickey by Michael J. Dwyer
Nimbus Publishing Ltd. (c/o Word Play, 221 Duckworth, St. John’s,
Newfoundland, Canada A1G 1G7), 1998. 185 pages. $14.95 paperback

It should be said at the outset that
Michael J. Dwyer’s first-hand account of his
season on a Newfoundland sealing ship is not
an animal rights book. A sense of animal justice––or
even compassion for his hapless victims––is
the furthest thing from Dwyer’s mind.

Instead, the book is a self-indulgent, gory,
and tedious recounting of how the seal hunt
affects the sealers, not the seals. Mickey and
his shipmates may be shooting, bludgeoning,
scalping, decapitating, sculpting, skinning,
disemboweling and dissecting the seals, but
hey, it’s really the sealers who suffer:
“I had heard the anti-whaling protesters
say that sealers were barbarians. They
were right. You have to be a barbarian to survive
it! However, it wasn’t barbaric to the
seals. They were on a picnic. Everything else
is barbaric. Once we used [seal heads] for two
hours to play ‘head-ball.’ It was like hockey,
but instead of using sticks, we used our
hakipiks to try to shoot the head between the
two twitching carcasses we used as goalposts.”
The book is a diary, beginning on
April 7, 1997, and concluding on April 23.
Day in and day out, the reader is subjected to
Mickey’s recounting of clinging to his bunk
each morning, wondering how in the hell he
can survive yet another day of intolerable misery;
what he eats; what he wears; how he
shivers; how he suffers. The refrain of the
whole book is, “What the hell am I doing
here?” The food is terrible, the weather conditions
inhumane, the remuneration virtually
nonexistent, and the bloodbath unrelenting.
Dwyer blows the cover off any
attempt to construe sealing as lucrative. Even
the captain is exploitative: “Perry was the captain
among many captains executing the hunt.
He owned the vessel. He wanted his share: a
major chunk of each and every seal. Fifty percent
came off the top, first and foremost, for
the boat. The sealers paid for the ammo, food,
fuel, and the trucking. Perry took 10%. The
sealers received 6% of what was left.”
The rules of the hunt don’t make it
any easier to eke out a living. Whitecoats are
not permitted (although they become fair game
days later when their coats change color), nor
are lactating females. However, taking illegal
seal parts is where money can be made: “An
old dog organ, as every sealer knows, brings
the best kind of money. Last year, on our first
trip, we brought in 550, almost a large fish
containerful. Very discreetly, they were
loaded onto a pickup that disappeared in the
night. We received more money from that tub
of organs than we did for a tractor-trailer
loaded with pelts, meat, and fat.”
While the book professes to be about
shattering myths, it goes out of its way to preserve
a few. Seals are referred to as “fish
eaters.” In one particularly grisy scene, a
sealer “decapitated the carcass with the axe
and severed the two hind flippers. He tossed it
into the stern corner and threw the head and
flippers overboard. ‘You’ll eat no more of our
fish!’ he said.” And later, “I watched the
sleeping harp…When we were within 30 yards
of him, he was still sleeping peacefully on his
side, stretched out, soaking up the evening,
contently digesting our fish.”
The book is hard to read for a few
reasons: the gruesome carnage, the barbarity
of the sealers themselves, and the unspeakably
lousy writing. If you read 50 pages, you’ll
have read the whole. There is no epiphany
here, no change of heart, no sense of redemption
or retribution. You’ll learn more than you
ever wanted to know about the details of the
seal hunt, but you’ll learn nothing about a
man’s search for his humanity.
––Janice Bailie
(Bailie is a Montreal writer and teacher.)

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