Val's Book Reviews

The Secret of Bell Island

by Mike Phelan

Victoria: FriesenPress, 2021
$28.99 / 9781039127296

This author has written a very thought-provoking story set on Bell Island in Newfoundland during two time periods – the Second World War and the present-day — which also makes for an intriguing narrative of a relationship between a father and a son.

In his Foreword, Mike Phelan describes a little Newfoundland and Bell Island history:

In 1891, Newfoundland was still part of the British Empire and remained so until 1949, when it became a province of Canada. In Conception Bay, on Belle Isle (which eventually came to be called Bell Island), there lived a small population of about seven hundred hardy souls, consisting mostly of fishermen and farmers. Although the heavy red rock had been known about for many years, and had even been used as boat ballast, its value as a commercial commodity was not realized until 1892, when applications to search for minerals were filed. By 1895, Bell Island began shipping some of the highest-grade iron ore ever discovered to steel manufactures in Nova Scotia.

Location of Bell Island, Newfoundland

Many men were employed as miners on Bell Island and Germany became a major customer. This apparently played a large role in stockpiling armaments leading up to the First World War. After the War, Bell Island’s rich resource became even more important to Germany but when their supply was cut off at the beginning of the Second World War, “the German high command began planning a response, the consequences of which could spell disaster for Bell Island.”

This Foreword is followed by an alarming Prologue set on Bell Island in July of 1955, concerning the possible drowning of a five year-old boy. This sets the scene for what is to come.

The protagonist in the present-day story is Matt McCarty who has travelled 5,000 miles from Vancouver to Newfoundland in order to arrange the funeral of his alcoholic father with whom he has had no contact since he left home in his teens. In the process he finds himself involved in a mystery on Bell Island concerning his father when he served there during the war. The tale is one that Matt had no knowledge of and enables him to see his father in a totally different light from the abusive, alcoholic man he remembers as a child and from whom he eventually ran away.

Newfoundland stamp, 1937, loading ore on Bell Island

The story switches back and forth between Matt and his deceased father enabling Matt to discover a clandestine wartime mission in 1942 in which his father Bill was involved. As described on the cover, Phelan’s book includes “spies, intrigue, treasure, sabotage and even murder.” All the ingredients, in fact, that are needed for a first-rate mystery story — which Phelan has delivered.

The parallel stories set in two different time periods are very similar in content — two spies: two treasure hunters: the discovery of romance in the most surprising places set years apart for both father and son, and the setting of the iron-ore abandoned mines which still hold appeal for treasure hunters today because of a seventy-five year old secret that was never resolved.

Vancouver writer Mike Phelan

The author has obviously based his story somewhat on his own life. He moved to Bell Island at the age of five when his father worked for the Dosco Mine Company as an electrical engineer during the last decade of mining, which ended in 1966. The mine closures caused a large exodus of workers to other parts of Canada and the United States. Phelan himself eventually settled in Vancouver.

But his obvious vast knowledge of the area and the Newfoundland people allow him to create many colourful characters with the use of local colloquialisms such as “yes, b’y” which is used frequently in his story. He seamlessly mixes together these local Bell Island characters with others from the past. There is his newfound stepsister, Evelyn, her granddaughter Cassie, Cassie’s friend Bev, and Kathryn, the woman to whom Matt becomes attracted. As the story goes back and forth, Phelan manages to create equally strong characters from the war years such as Matt’s father Bill and the two German wartime spies, Kurt Becher and August Kahr.

Drillers in a Bell Island iron mine, 1949. Photo by George Hunter, courtesy Library and Archives Canada, National Film Board fonds, e011175779

The treasure hunters of present-day, Peter Farrell and his side-kick Hunt, are men with no conscience. Farrell is especially cruel and will kill with no hesitation or regret, but he also needs Hunt to do some of his dirty work.

As Matt teaches Cassie and Bev, two members of his new family, the art of rock climbing in order to explore the caves in the abandoned mines, things become excessively dangerous and Matt must make some difficult decisions.

This is a story well-worth reading with a poignant Epilogue explaining how a very brave man during wartime could become an alcoholic and abusive father, but helps a son discover and unravel a mystery.

Mike Phelan’s extensive research makes for a delightful self-published novel which will hold your attention to the very end.

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