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A Modern Family

Helen Fogwill Porter Tackles Teen Abortion
By Alexandra Millburn

Volume 18 Number 1
1990 January

The author of January, February, June or July, winner of the 1989 CLA Young AdultBook Award, talks about family relationships in a Newfoundland context.


January, February, June or July will make you miss your family. And if you're a Newfoundlander, it will make you miss Newfoundland.

In her first novel, Helen Fogwill Porter paints an accurate and revealing portrait of a Newfoundland family in crisis. Porter says she did not make a conscious decision to set her novel in St. John's, "but it took over on its own." Born and raised in St. John's, Porter knows it best, although she believes that January, February, June or July could be played out in the same way in any part of Canada.

The story is about Heather Novak, a thoughtful, sensitive fifteen-year-old, who gets pregnant and opts for abortion. Although the novel is essentially a study of family relationships, its focus is on abortion and how one family deals with it.

Porter has written about family relationships since she began publishing articles, reviews, short stories, poetry and plays in 1963. "I've always been concerned with family. Families are really important even when you don't think they are." One of her earlier works, For Every Man an Island, a radio play about the Newfoundland resettlement program of the early 1960s, deals with the turmoil that resettlement caused within a family. One of the characters says, 'We depend on other people for certain things, and we build bridges to them, but the family is a secure and private thing."

January, February, June or July deals with the Novak family and Heather's place within it. It is a family of women. Heather's father is absent and her grandfather is dead. Her step-grandfather and her Uncle Fred play minor roles and, at best, are ineffectual and dominated by the women in their lives. Men in Porter's books are weak and she has been criticized for this. "I didn't intend to be hard on them," she says, but "I can convey women so much better." And so she does with the women of the Novak family.

Eileen Novak, Heather's mother, married an American serviceman who was stationed in St. John's in the 1950s. Like many Newfoundland girls, Eileen returned to the U.S. with him, where Heather was born. When Heather was three, Eileen returned to St. John's without her husband and with her three daughters in tow. She took a beauty culture course, got a job as a hairdresser, and settled into a low-income neighbourhood. Porter portrays Eileen's situation with startling realism: Porter knows several women who returned to Newfoundland with their children after their marriages to American servicemen broke up and she also lives very close to Eileen's not-so-fictional neighbourhood.

Heather has only vague memories of her father and she thinks of him often. "Heather might never see her father again," says Porter. "This takes hold of her and never lets go." She longs to see him again or to hear from him. Heather's relationship with her mother and sisters is not what she'd like it to be, either. She wants warmth, love and affection but her family is preoccupied with scraping out a living by working in low-paying, unskilled jobs or by "goin' up to the welfare." Heather is lost and alone, and she turns to handsome Frank Marshall for affection.

Her affair with Frank is brief and Heather is left alone with her unwanted pregnancy. Unable to turn to her family for support, Heather decides for abortion on her own. She finds a strength within herself when she is confronted with pregnancy just as surely as Eileen found an inner strength when she left Heather's father. This signals the beginning of self-respect and respect from others.

Heather's abortion is the crisis that brings the family together and makes Heather realize that they were really there for her all along. Because her family was not loving and demonstrative the way that she wished it to be, she believed there was no support or caring. Heather learns that love is not only outward shows of affection; it can also be unspoken. January, February, June or July shows that communication is the key to the health and happiness of the family.

Not a follower of contemporary wisdom, Porter does not believe the family as a unit is breaking up. "There are all kinds of families," says Porter. "Even bad families mean a lot to the people in them. It surprises me when young people come home for Christmas or for a death in the family and I know what kind of families they come from.

Also about families is Porter's forthcoming work, a collection of short stories tentatively called A Long and Lonely Ride. Short stories are her favoured medium: she enjoys reading them and also finds them satisfying to write. Although she sees herself as a writer first and a Newfoundlander second, she is "all for regional writing. Writers tend to be stronger about what they know."

And Porter certainly knows Newfoundland, family relationships and the heart and mind of a fifteen-year-old girl -- so much so that she was awarded the 1989 Canadian Library Association Young Adult Book Award for January, February, June or July. Although it was intended to be a novel that anyone could read, not specifically for young adults, Porter is "very pleased with the award. It meant a lot to me to be acknowledged in that way."

A well-known feminist in Newfoundland, Porter chose abortion as a topic because she wanted her novel to cover a short time period with a tightly focused subject. This gives an immediacy to the novel and an added spark to the family dynamics. She also wanted to show that "an ordinary girl, not hardhearted or selfish, could decide for abortion." Porter has not heard any official reaction from the prolife movement and has received very little negative feedback. "If I was trying for a message at all in January, February, June or July, it was 'this is how it is when it's one girl -- not an anonymous person. When a situation hits home, it's entirely different.'"

Porter succeeds in getting this message across as she explores the dynamics of an ordinary family confronted with an extraordinary situation. But she also gives us much more. She lets us into the life of a teenage girl coming to terms with herself and her family and beginning to reach out to those who always cared.

Books by Helen Fogwill Porter

Below the Bridge: Memories of the South Side of St. John's. .Breakwater Books, 1979.

For Every Man an Island .Breakwater Books, 1982.

From This Place: A Selection of Writing by Women of Newfoundland and Labrador. Selected and edited by Bernice Morgan, Helen Porter and Geraldine Rubia .Jesperson Press, 1977.

January, February, June or July .Breakwater Books, 1988.

Alexandra Milburn is a freelance editor.

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