Newfoundland Off the Map: Michael Crummey’s Sweetland

sweetlandThe demographics don’t lie. In a couple of decades, a generation at most, dozens of Newfoundland communities will have disappeared, and there seems to be no way to reverse the flow. Soon, all that will remain will be a ghostly assembly like the one that closes Michael Crummey’s Sweetland – a scene reminiscent of some of David Blackwood’s bleaker prints, first understood as memorial but now revealed as prophecy.

Crummey’s latest novel left me with a sadness I have trouble translating into words. In it, Newfoundland and Labrador’s provincial government, flush with oil money in 2012, is offering $100,000 to each household in the shrinking and expensive-to-maintain island outport of Sweetland – not to improve or renew the community, but to destroy it. In a resurrection of Newfoundland’s mid-twentieth century resettlement program, the money will only be paid if every resident of the community agrees to leave. The title character, Moses Sweetland, is one of two holdouts refusing to take up the government’s seemingly generous offer. He is determined to stay, no matter the cost. His obstinacy prevents his friends and neighbours from collecting the government’s money, tearing apart the tight-knit community as a result.

Crummey tells us the stories that make up Sweetland. His graceful prose slowly weaves the reader into the fabric of the community, so the stakes become real – and Moses Sweetland’s stance, which first looks quixotic, gains an emotional logic. At one point, Moses comes across a “commemorative map” from a long-gone “Come Home Year,” a poorly-made rendering of the island of Newfoundland, full of error and omission. Stoned, bitter, with nothing better to do, Moses “spent the better part of an hour then, adding missing names along the coastline, drawing in small islands that had been inexplicably left out…” – and that’s what Sweetland is about: writing into reality the small islands that have been left out of official accounts, omitted from commemorative maps. “He stepped away when he thought he was done, admiring his handiwork. Reached up to draw a line through the faux-antique Come Home Year. Wrote Stay Home Year above it.”

                     

Most Canadians I meet are unaware of Newfoundland’s resettlement program. After Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949, the newly provincial government faced the expensive challenge of bringing “modern” services to thousands of isolated communities now deemed “unsustainable,” many of them on smaller islands. The government devised a resettlement program, erasing hundreds of communities from the map, coercing tens of thousands of Newfoundlanders to move to designated “growth centres.” Resettled people were told to “burn their boats” and abandon their centuries-old way of life. New industrial developments were supposed to provide employment, but they all failed, and fishing remained the bedrock of rural Newfoundland’s economy. The resettlement program ended in 1975, but it had already succeeded in emptying many communities, which remained abandoned.

After a brief period of stability, the closure of the cod fishery in 1992 caused new upheavals. Hundreds of communities lost the livelihood that had sustained them for two or three hundred years. This time, however, there was no promise of work in a nearby “growth centre”; this time, Newfoundland itself was the “unsustainable” island that would have to be abandoned. The provincial population shrank by more than 10% in less than a decade. Provincial unemployment exceeded 20%, and in some outports, the rate was 50% or even higher. My hometown, Placentia, was one of the old “growth centres.” Between 1991 and 2001, the year I graduated high school, it shrank by almost 25%.

For many Newfoundlanders, identity and locality twine together. Since 1949, Canada has been printed on the passport, but “Newfoundlander” is the primary identity. “Newfoundland” is not just Newfoundland, but the particular bay or cove that sheltered your family for perhaps eight or nine generations. Each such bay or cove hosted a unique variation of an already-minority culture, and they were now all under threat.

In the early 2000s the oil boom supplanted this apocalyptic narrative. Newfoundland was rich – a “have” province. But oil did not change the situation for most of rural Newfoundland. The cod moratorium, envisioned as temporary, is now almost twenty-five years old. The slow-motion extinction of communities, of the ways of life special to each place, is still unfolding.

And now the resettlement program is back. 

                     

The loss the residents of Sweetland experience is an echo of the more violent losses faced by the island’s first peoples, and indeed Crummey’s first novel, River Thieves, is a thoughtful literary treatment of the colonization of Beothuk territories by Newfoundlanders. His breakthrough came with 2010’s Galore, a novel stuffed to the gills with Newfoundland lore. Although it was mostly skipped by the big Canadian awards, it gathered a lot of international attention. It won the London-based Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Canada and the Caribbean, was shortlisted for the Dublin IMPAC award, and was featured on the Diane Rehm show on NPR. I bought my copy at a Manhattan bookstore: the clerk gushed, unprompted, about how much buzz it had. As Galore gained traction elsewhere, more Canadians seemed to realize its sumptuous and strange genius.

Sweetland makes me wonder if Crummey, while no doubt thankful for Galore’s success, wants to complicate any starry-eyed romanticism readers might have absorbed about “the improbable medieval world of Newfoundland.” Upon finishing Sweetland, I wondered, “Will mainlanders get this?” In many ways that’s a silly question, but it lies at the heart of this novel. If Sweetland were completely transparent to non-Newfoundlanders, there wouldn’t be much at stake in the dilemma facing either Sweetland-the-outport or Sweetland-the-man. If Newfoundland were just another part of Canada, there would be no tragedy in leaving it, and no difficulty in feeling at home and being understood in Calgary or Toronto or Halifax or Moncton, for that matter.

The gap in understanding between Newfoundland and mainland readers was reaffirmed for me in the Globe and Mail’s sympathetic review. The reviewer unknowingly reproduced as true a half-funny, half-aggressive lie Moses Sweetland tells a visiting journalist, hungry for a bit of local colour. Moses often lies when confronted by authorities from outside his community. He tells the prying journalist that his name is “Swietlund” and that he’s descended from an ancient family of Swedish settlers. His Swedish ancestry never comes up again, but it would if it were true. Newfoundland is one of the most culturally and genetically homogenous communities in North America, and most of it was settled almost exclusively by people from a small corner of south-eastern Ireland and another small corner of south-western England. A Swedish ancestry would be remarkable and remarked upon. The name “Sweetland,” however, is common in the tiny corner of England from which Newfoundland settlers came, and every linguistic and cultural clue Moses Sweetland gives suggests he is of English West Country extraction. A Newfoundland reader trained to perceive such clues would immediately recognize Sweetland’s fib for what it is—an outrageous whopper told to a credulous outsider. But without this understanding, his lie becomes completely believable—especially if you’re not aware that the Vikings left Newfoundland almost as soon as they got there, and that the current European-derived culture is entirely unrelated to them. (Don’t be fooled by the tourism ads!)

It’s a little thing, this moment of misunderstanding, but it’s a reminder that even sympathetic outsiders remain outsiders—and that most Canadians are outsiders, when it comes to Newfoundland. Language and communication work differently on and off the island, and most Canadians know very little about the traditional Newfoundland culture that’s dying. It’s a foreign culture, just as it was before 1949.

                     

Galore was a celebration of Newfoundland’s strange folklore, creating an infinite universe of wonder within finite historical bounds—mythic Newfoundland looping from the late eighteenth century through to World War II, fading from reality but still accessible through story. Going back at least to 1998’s Hard Light, Crummey’s writing tells us again and again that today’s Newfoundlanders belong to two worlds, the mundane world and a numinous world of ancestors, a world half-forgotten, elusive but still palpable—sometimes. Galore attempted to nail that down, to corral the myths and folklore and fragments of memories that are Newfoundland’s shaky bridge to its past into a solid textual reality—something that will endure. Galore did not shy away from describing the island’s harsh qualities, the precarious and marginal lives of its inhabitants. But perhaps there was something falsely reassuring in its fairy-tale quality. Unlike Galore, Sweetland isn’t a work of magical realism, but there are ghostly elements in it, unexplained events, encounters with the supernatural. In Sweetland these events and encounters are troubling, unsettling, even threatening. There is no comfort in the ghosts. These ghosts do not connect us Newfoundlanders to a past that replenishes a sense of identity. They stand as silent accusers, reminders of what’s still being lost, of our ongoing and increasing estrangement from what made us us.

There’s a moment where Moses, now Sweetland’s last (illegal) resident, raids his neighbour Queenie’s abandoned house for reading material – to use as toilet paper. Queenie was a voracious reader who favoured trashy romance novels, but she would sometimes read Newfoundland literary fiction out of a sense of “patriotism.” Moses decides, as a memorial act, to finish the last book Queenie was reading, one of these literary depictions of Newfoundland. “Half an hour later he was ready to throw the bloody thing in the stove… 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.” Moses considers adding this “authentic” literary depiction of Newfoundland to the pile by the toilet, “flushing it one soiled page at a time,” but he decides it deserves a special send-off. He clambers down to the water and throws what Toronto has judged to be “authentic Newfoundland” into the ocean.

Is the book Moses throws into the ocean maybe one of Crummey’s own? Perhaps even Galore? This passage becomes a despairing “what good did that do?” act of literary violence. Literature will not save us. Ghost stories and folklore will not save us. There may be no use in turning to folklore when an entire culture is going extinct.

That’s the corrective Sweetland offers. Rural Newfoundland is not a fairy-tale place inhabited by fairy-tale characters. It is a real place, a marginal culture choking and sputtering at the hand of circumstance.

In anticipation of Sweetland, the Globe and Mail published an essay by Crummey titled “What it means to be a Newfoundlander is quickly changing” (as if, post-1940s, that was anything new!). It seemed likely to be another piece about how Newfoundland is so wealthy and cosmopolitan now, how the streets of St. John’s run black with espresso, caviar, crude, and budget surplus. But prosperous St. John’s is not Crummey’s subject (for that, see Lisa Moore). The article, like the novel it was meant to promote, only mentions the oil boom to stress that it’s restricted to a small area around the provincial capital. The article and the novel focus on a simple fact: the cod moratorium dealt a deathblow to hundreds of communities, each with its own small, strange, old culture.

Rural Newfoundland has been bleeding out since the early 1990s. Oil money has done nothing to change that. Sweetland is so urgent and painful because it undoes any optimism, any sense that Newfoundland is OK now, that it has found a stable and sustainable place within Confederation. Sweetland reminds us that the Newfoundland that joined Canada is almost dead. You can’t save it. But you can bear witness to its passage. And that is the beauty of Crummey’s achievement. Mainlanders may not “get” all of it, but Crummey is inviting everyone into this loss—and giving you tools to feel it along with us.

About the author

Michael Collins

Michael Collins is originally from rural southern Newfoundland, but now lives in urban southern Ontario. He writes about Newfoundland literary culture at nfldtxt.com, and is completing a PhD on the same topic at the University of Toronto.

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By Michael Collins