by Edith Cody-Rice
Michael Crummey is a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award in fiction for his new novel Sweetland. Well deserved. Mr. Crummey is a great raconteur of Newfoundland outport life, his previous novel Galore, a tale of struggle and survival there. His stories are so recognizably Newfoundland, that you have a distinct feeling that they could not happen elsewhere. There is a strong visual picture of the place, the people and the language. There must be thousands of communities worldwide clinging to the edge of a civilization as the outports do, but you somehow feel that this particular story could only happen in our eastern most province.
Sweetland is the name of the book, the island where the outport is located and of the main character, the 70 year old Moses Sweetland, descendant of Swedish immigrants named Swietlund. Moses embodies the life and fate of Newfoundland men – a fisherman until the cod runs out, then a light house keeper until the light is automated and finally, before he finally retires to the island, a labourer in Ontario until an accident ruins both his face and chance for a family. He returns to his roots, to Sweetland, but even that will be taken from him, as the government moves to save money by offering a settlement to residents to move to the mainland. Then they won’t need to operate the ferry.
Moses is a hold out. Everyone on the island has accepted a substantial sum of money to move but Sweetland. The government’s deal is everyone or no one, so tensions run high and Moses is the object of much hostility. To complicate matters, his great nephew Jonas, who needs care in St John’s for his autism but who doesn’t want to leave the island, is counting on Moses to prevent the move.
The story is rich in detail with every character on the island is vivid and vital. You feel that you could move into a local house and drop in on them, if they would have you.
There is an undertone of resignation and a mood of darkness in the book. The community, that had been so close, simply disintegrates as life long residents are slowly ferried away. But although he agreed to take the package, which permitted the others to benefit, Moses decides in the end to stay on the island, isolated, as it returns to nature. As he struggles, the novel turns to magic realism, in a denouement that illustrates while the living have left, the spirits of the dead remain richly alive.
Sweetland is published Doubleday Canada, a division of Random House of Canada