Michael Crummey’s novel of nineteenth century Newfoundland is another epic worth reading. John Peyton and his father live off the land and sea in a country where the native people, the Beothuk, have been driven away. The story centres on an unsettling incident where two Beothuk men are killed by a group that includes the Peytons. The fall out from this incident and how it affects both men is the central drama of the book.
The settlers see the land as theirs without any thought to who might have lived there before them. One of the settlers is called Reilly who has himself been displaced since he is an Irishman who lived in London before being exiled to Newfoundland. He is married to a Mi’kmaq woman so seems to have an affinity with First Nation people yet he is implicated in dark goings on with the Beothuk. Then there is Cassie, a woman employed by the older Peyton as housekeeper. John Peyton’s passion for her grows but he is inarticulate when faced with his belief that she is his father’s lover.
Themes of belonging, family, identity and inheritance run through the novel. The idea of settlers as pioneers making their way in a new world are challenged when the consequences of their actions on the existing inhabitants are considered.
‘River Thieves’ by Michael Crummey is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This 1998 novel by Wayne Johnston is an epic exploration of the life of Joe Smallwood, the Prime Minister of Newfoundland who steered his country into confederation with Canada in the 40s. The story is told from his point of view and shows how he rose from difficult beginnings to a position where he could ‘do something great’. He is an outsider for most of his life so strives to make his mark and gain recognition and validation.
He crosses paths with Sheilagh Fielding at the private school from which he is unjustly expelled. Her career as a journalist means she is both ally and combatant in his life. In the novel she provides us with the external view of a complicated man.
In many ways, Smallwood and Newfoundland are similar. Both feel inferior to others and long to be accepted. The campaign to join Canada is a difficult one for many people but Smallwood sees this as Newfoundland’s opportunity to make a mark in the world. Fielding is an acerbic character providing the reader with the antidote to Smallwood’s determination and optimism. Her waspish contributions to journalism punctuate the book.
It is a long book that maintains interest over its 500 pages by always exploring the humanity behind the historical decisions. ‘The Colony of Unrequited Dreams’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
As it is Thanksgiving in Canada today, it is a good time to remember the achievement of connecting Europe with North America through cable technology. The small Newfoundland town of Hearts’s Content was the location of the emergence of the cable from under the sea all the way across the Atlantic from Ireland.
The cable was laid in 1866 and in arriving in this small place on Bay de Verde, Newfoundland it turned the village into a unique community. Most places along the coast were fishing villages but the people who came to work and live here worked in communications. People came from across Canada and England to work in the hub on the route from Britain to the United States of America.
In 2017, artist Padraig Tarrant created twin sculptures, one for Valentia Island, Ireland where the cable entered the sea and the other for Heart’s Content in Newfoundland, Canada. I got to see the Canadian version weeks after it was unveiled but still need to make it to Valentia Island to see the companion piece.
This novel by Lawrence Hill made for fascinating reading. A novel, it follows the story of Langston Cane as he researches his family background in preparation for a novel. This metacognition is heightened by the fact that each of the (male) relatives he follows are also called Langston Cane.
‘Our’ Langston is number five and working for a government minister when the book opens but a misdemeanour with a speech he prepares for his boss finds him out of work. As his wife has also left him, he is without a purpose until family history sends him from Toronto to Baltimore and his aunt who is estranged from her brother. She has information about her father and grandfather and Langston uses this to piece together a story of race and civil rights across the generations.
Both world wars feature as does the underground railway to Canada used by slaves escaping the USA. The civil rights movement and interracial marriage are here, too. An African illegally resident is a key character while historical figures such as John Brown and Frederick Douglass pop up.
What makes the book work as more than a fictionalised family history is the story of Cane trying to navigate the present while looking into the past. Lawrence Hill avoids giving us a chronological version of the past Cane’s revealing bits of the past out of sequence before providing ‘chunks’ of the story of previous Langston Canes.
‘Any Known Blood’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This Canadian film tells the story of a young, conflicted boy discovering his sexuality and trying to survive the fall out of his parents’ split. His talking hamster helps him through and, although that sounds like a ‘cute’ device, it actually works well in this case.
Oscar witnessed a homophobic beating when he was young. Years later, as an eighteen year old who is about to graduate he notices a new fellow employee at his weekend place of work. Wilder seems to be worldly-wise and a hit with everyone he meets and Oscar is attracted to him but traumatised by the childhood memories.
Oscar is artistic and dreams of enrolling on a make up course in New York City. His best friend helps him out by modelling for him and their closeness leads Oscar’s father to believe they are in a relationship. Things become uncertain when his plans fall apart and Wilder announces his imminent departure.
Set in St.John’s, Newfoundland the film and directed by Stephen Dunn, it is an excellent exploration of the confusion felt by some youngsters when they search for their place in the world. Themes of separation, homophobia and misplaced loyalties thread through the film yet it is ultimately a joyous celebration of youth and coming through difficult times.
‘Closet Monster’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This book is just right as a ‘coffee table’ book! The pictures are amazing and the page layout uses the illustrations to good effect to give an overview of the British Empire over a hundred year period from 1850. Each chapter has a theme exploring the century when the Empire was at its height. Actually, the book does touch on the declining years as well, in part because Imperial attitudes continued long after the Empire had metamorphosed into the Commonwealth. Sport, the role of British public schools, the military and trade all have chapters which show how the Empire was built and sustained.
I am fascinated by British Empire history, not just the idea of a small nation crossing the world and building countries in its own image but also the idea of a country that was influenced and altered because of its fascination with far away places.
Ashley Jackson has written a very good overview of the century when Empire was at its height. The sense of entitlement can be seen in the selection of images; advertisements, book covers and magazine articles all show that the Empire attitude felt itself to be beyond question. It is striking to see the attitudes of some of the subject people who view Britain (or England) as a child views a parent. Coffee table book by nature and probably design, the book is still worth reading in its entirety. The text is as illuminating as the pictures.
My favourite chapter was the one that covered popular culture. Many of the books were ones I read as I grew up with the imagery and messages of Empire even though I was born after the period covered here; the books were still here on the shelves in the London libraries I frequented in the 60s searching for a wider world I longed to visit. It took a long time for Empire attitudes to fade away.
‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This 1998 Canadian film tells the lives of people in five countries over four centuries who come into contact with the red violin of the title. The instrument was made in Italy in the seventeenth century. In this segment, the story is told in Italian of the violin maker and his wife and child. We find out why the violin is red, a particularly sad part of the film, before moving on a century to Vienna where we meet a young boy who is a musical prodigy. He is given the violin by the monks of the orphanage where he lives. He has a bright future and his music master sees a great future for them both. Another tragedy strikes, though, and the violin moves on to Oxford in Britain.
From Oxford in the late nineteenth century to Shanghai, China in the grip of the cultural revolution and on to Montreal, Canada in the late 90s, or what would have been the present at the time of the film’s release, we follow the violin as it passes from one owner to another.
What the film does, rather cleverly, is to show the importance of music in the lives of all sorts of people. Over the centuries, the violin becomes more valuable, especially as stories about its provenance emerge. The owners throughout its history see the instrument not as a valuable item in itself but essential because of what they create on it. In the final scenes in the auction house it seems as if this important message has been lost.
Episodic films can be problematic; if one segment is much weaker than the rest, the whole film is affected. In ‘The Red Violin’, though, each part of the story serves the greater narrative. It was directed by Francois Girard with a screenplay by Don McKellar. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?