What I’m Reading: Michael Crummey, Sweetland

Fair warning: the following post includes mild spoilers.

If you haven’t yet read anything by Michael Crummey, you need to correct that ASAP. Not because his books are capital-G, capital-L Great Literature (though they are), but because in not reading his work you are denying yourself a great pleasure. I’d rank him as one of the best prose stylists currently writing, but never does his talented wordsmithing distract from his stable of vibrant, humorous, tragic characters or his superb storytelling. Reading a Michael Crummey novel is a balancing act between wanting to read slowly to savor the prose and race ahead to see what happens next.

And because you can’t swing a dead cat in St. John’s without hitting a great writer, I can also personally attest to the fact that he is one of the nicest people you could ever meet (he didn’t even get upset with me for hitting him with a dead cat).

sweetlandSweetland is his fourth novel, and like the three previous, it is about Newfoundland’s fraught relationship with its  history. In River Thieves (2001) he tells the story of the extinction of the Beothuk as seen from the perspective of British naval officer; in The Wreckage (2005), he depicts a romance between a Catholic young man and a Protestant girl, and the intrusion of the Second World War into Newfoundland in the form of the recruitment of its young men and the presence of American military bases. Both novels are solid pieces of storytelling, beautifully written; but it was his third novel Galore (2009) that truly blew me away. Set in the fictional outport of Paradise Deep, it is a multi-generational narrative (I hesitate to use the word “epic,” though it comes close to being appropriate in this case) that tells the story of a community and their struggles: with each other, with their own selves, but especially with this hostile geography to which they have been brought by hope, misfortune, or happenstance. Galore is a magical realist novel whose most obvious influence (or at least precursor) is One Hundred Years of Solitude. Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s landmark novel, Galore is about a small village beyond the fringes of civilization, in which anything can happen and indeed often does. Crummey employs a combination of harsh realism to describe the hardships endured by the community, and a host of legends and folklore from Newfoundland’s past; the result is a narrative that pivots between a painfully tactile sense of reality and outsized events and circumstances.

Sweetland, by contrast, is set in the present day in the midst of what has become the most recent wave of Resettlement. If you wonder why that word deserves a capital R, you need to know that in the aftermath of Newfoundland joining Confederation in 1949, premier Joey Smallwood embarked on a project of modernization. He had been able to sway the province’s opinion to his side on the Confederation issue by making lavish promises to rural Newfoundland about the financial benefits that would accrue by joining Canada. Part of fulfilling those promises entailed resettling huge swaths of outport populations to more central locations, where they would have access to both the promised financial benefits and such infrastructure as roads and electricity, health care, and education. Huge amounts of money were spent in payouts to those being relocated, and in literally uprooting entire villages.


One of the many bewildering images from Resettlement: a house being towed across the water to its new home.

Resettlement remains a painful wound in Newfoundland’s modern history, as it was carried out more or less by fiat and destroyed countless communities with, in many cases, hundreds of years of history.

Today, there is a similar move (this time termed “Relocation,” presumably to avoid the painful connotations of “Resettlement”) as Newfoundland’s economy, largely buoyed by oil revenues, booms; outports, many whose only connection to the rest of the province is by ferry, find their populations shrinking and aging as the young move to St. John’s or farther afield to Alberta. The government is again offering money to those wishing to relocate—and in the process leaving behind villages that will no longer need ferry service or electricity. But with Smallwood’s high-handedness and the resentment it incurred (and still incurs) ever in mind, the deal now is that Relocation can only happen if a community votes unanimously for it.

Which brings us to Sweetland, which is about a fictional island outport called Sweetland and the argument about Relocation. The village is mostly on board, but for one or two holdouts—among whom is Moses Sweetland, a stubborn old bachelor who refuses to sign on even as his few allies fall away and leave him standing alone. He resists the blandishments of his neighbours, which eventually come to comprise threatening notes, vandalism, and a few gruesome messages in the form of mutilated rabbits.

When a certain tragedy befalls the village, however, particularly affecting Moses, he finally agrees to sign the papers. Perhaps predictably, he does not leave with the rest but effectively fakes his own death by setting his boat adrift and hiding until the village has emptied.

The novel’s first half—which is all about Moses’ relationships with his friends and neighbours, and in particular his autistic nephew Jesse—is a wonderfully nuanced and textured depiction of Moses’ life in his village, and dramatizes the political context to great effect. But it is the second half of the novel, when Moses is left alone on the island without power or any means of contacting the outside world, that Crummey’s narrative reaches virtuosic levels. For one thing, it leaves the political argument behind and becomes the story of a man very slowly losing his mind as solitude and winter implacably close in on him. But it is also where the political argument of the first half opens up into symbolic and indeed allegorical dimensions. Left alone with only the ghosts of the past—and his neighbour’s mutt—for company, there is nothing to mediate between the two Sweetlands, the man and the outport with which he shares a name.

The more I reflect on Sweetland, the more I find it functions as a companion piece to Galore. Where the former is a sweeping story in the mold of One Hundred Years of Solitude, Sweetland is a minutely observed story about a single person in a narrow corridor of time. And yet what they have in common is the vivid sense of the mystery of place, the invidious way in which geography conflates with history in ways that are by turns comforting and pernicious. Galore, by its nature as magical realism, romanticizes a certain dimension of Newfoundland history, but it most emphatically does not sentimentalize it. It is romantic in the true sense of the word, in that it depicts a space outside the settled, domesticated world. If not literal wilderness, Paradise Deep is nevertheless as close as one can be to it while still being inhabited: a marginal space that, in the tradition of romance, is also a mythic space home to the embellishments of reality that extreme geographies spawn.

The first half of Sweetland is neither sentimental nor romantic; the romance of Galore does burble up in the second half however, but only in suggestive, fleeting ways, and only at the fringes of Moses’ decaying sanity. His explicit connection to the village, made first by their common nomenclature, develops allegorically as he erodes along with its structures, as he cannibalizes the village for supplies. Seeking toilet paper (which he kicks himself for not having stockpiled), he plunders his neighbour’s collection of Harlequin romances. Among the pulp novels are a handful of “literary” texts the woman’s daughter had attempted to get her to read, one of which has the bookmark at the halfway point. It is a novel about Newfoundland, he sees, and as a means of passing the time decides that he will finish what she had started:

Half an hour later he was ready to throw the bloody thing in the stove. Three afternoons in a row he sat in the day’s last light with the book, feeling like a man sentenced to dragging beach stones up the face of the Mackerel cliffs. He looked at the cover each time he quit reading, flipped it to inspect the back. A quote from a Toronto paper about “authentic Newfoundland.” Whoever wrote the book didn’t know his arse from a dory, Sweetland figured, and had never caught or cleaned a fish in his life. “Jesus fuck,” he whispered.

This comic reaction to a novel about “authentic” Newfoundland (my money is on The Bird Artist) speaks to one of Sweetland’s subtle themes, which is the fallacy of authenticity. Though Sweetland is adamant in his refusal to abandon his home, even in the face of overwhelming opposition and threats, he cannot articulate his reasoning to himself. He offers no speeches, articulated either internally or externally, about history or community roots, about the depredation of traditional Newfoundland, about the need to hold fast to one’s principles in the face of nefarious societal change. He is no sentimentalist, and in the final stages of his life bears little in the way of affection for any of his neighbours (with the exceptions of Jesse and his longtime friend Duke).

So why does he reject Relocation for so long, and after capitulating, go to the extreme of faking his own death in order to stay behind? Crummey leaves that questions unanswered, and it is in the very lack of articulation of Sweetland’s motives that the novel ultimately rests. As mentioned above, it is in part the mystery of history and geography: Sweetland’s home as both a lived reality but also an imaginary space, which functions as a representation of Newfoundland more broadly. The fallacy of authenticity on display in the nameless novel he reads finds a somewhat more symbolic articulation in the final few pages of the novel. Not long after winter starts to set in, Sweetland takes refuge from a snowstorm in a cabin once owned by the thuggish Priddle brothers. In a delirium of near-hypothermia (as well as the alcohol and stale pot he finds stashed there), he annotates a map of Newfoundland tacked to one of the walls. He takes the map with him when he escapes back to the village, but forgets about it until the final pages, when he looks at what he has written:

Noticed the map there, spread across the table’s surface, the paper kinked along the rough creases where it had been folded in his knapsack. Stay Home Year scrawled across the top. Sweetland shook his head at that now, at the long list of fanciful harbours and coves and islands and straits he’d pencilled around the coast. Along the entire length of Newfoundland’s south coast were the words Here Be Monsters with a shaky emoticon happy face drawn beside it. His handwriting, though he couldn’t for the life of him remember settling them there.

In one way, Sweetland is a novel about the impossibility of writing a novel about Newfoundland—or rather, the impossibility of reaching an authentic understanding of what I’m calling the conflation of history and geography and its effects, of the representation of place as being at once a set of lived realities and necessarily imaginary. Moses’ literally ecstatic over-writing of the map, especially with the warning Here Be Monsters, evokes the medieval cartographic imagination and the long tradition of romance in which the spaces beyond the known are invariably filled with the stuff of legend. It also however evokes the geographies of Galore, which articulate the truths of story and myth and the unreality of history.

In the end, Moses Sweetland’s very name provides one of the novel’s central ironies: if his surname explicitly speaks to his apparently absolute connection to place, his first name is a cruel reminder that there is no Promised Land, and that the exodus his people undertake is a movement away from home. If there is an epiphany for Sweetland at all, it is at best an ambivalent one, which occurs as he nearly drowns trying to escape his self-imposed solitude:

This was the sway of things, Sweetland knew. There was fighting the sway of things or improvising some fashion of riding it out. And then there was the sway of things beyond fighting and improvisation. It was almost impossible to know the difference between one and the other.

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