Review: Sweetland by Michael Crummey

I loved Michael Crummey’s Sweetland. It was one of those books where you turn the final page, and want to talk about it with someone else who’s read it. I didn’t have to wait for a friend to finish it, however. I was lucky enough to sit down with the author himself when he came through Toronto in August.

Crummey-Home-A
photo courtesy of CBC

This is only the second book of Crummey’s I’ve read. When I first read Michael Crummey’s Galore, I wasn’t sure what to think of it.

Growing up, fantasy novels were my guilty pleasure (Wheel of Time. Sue me.) and so I’ve always thought of fantasy and literary fiction being mutually exclusive. Luckily, I read Galore with my book club, so through our conversation I saw that the myth, mystery and uncertainty in the novel wasn’t just because it fell under “magical realism,” but because those qualities are tied up in the history of Newfoundland. Crummey uses the magic and lore of the land to define and shape Galore and he does it again in Sweetland.

Moses Sweetland and his family have called a remote island off the coast of Newfoundland home for over 12 generations. When the government decides to reclaim the island and resettle it’s population, all the inhabitants are offered a settlement package. The catch is, it’s either all or nothing – and Moses refuses to leave. What unfolds is an intimate look at a community steeped in its own history and how these troubled characters each face the challenge of moving on.

cod fishing, 1921, Grand Banks fishery

Having a mother from a small, tight-knit community on the east coast, I’m familiar with the knowing yet wary nod of “you come from away, do yas?” When reading Sweetland, however, I felt immersed in and part of the community. Crummey leaves a lot to the reader (i.e. complex fishing terms), yet I never felt like I didn’t belong.

The characters came to life fully formed. About 50 pages in, I realized that when I read their names, there they were in my head. I could picture the way they laughed, whispered, held a cigarette; Crummey’s descriptions weren’t lengthy, yet somehow impeccable. In Galore, however, the characters seemed to be hard to hold on to. When I finally felt like I knew a character, their role in the story was over.

“In Galore, the characters are supporting characters to the main character, Newfoundland. The subject, the reason, the beginning, and the end is Newfoundland and everyone in the book is there for what they bring to that characterization. What drew me to it, Sweetland, to a certain extent, is that it’s about one person. I really tried to recreate a sense of community that is very intertwined.”

When I sat down to write out some questions to ask the author, I was surprised to realize that almost all the characters in Sweetland are damaged. Damaged, yet somehow not broken. You aren’t caught up with feelings of pity for them, either. They exist in the book to play their role in Sweeland’s community. Pilgrim is blind, Jesse is undiagnosed, but seemingly autistic, Queenie hasn’t left her house since she was a little girl and even Moses, himself, has been through a terrible accident.

“It was deliberate. But… everybody’s a little bit nuts. In a small community, that’s amplified. There’s no way to escape other people’s craziness. There’s space in the modern world to ignore it: institutions, etc. In Newfoundland back then, they accommodated people in the community, including people with serious mental illnesses. The fact that these people were accommodated, given a home, accepted, served them way better than some of the solutions that we’ve come up with in other places. Of course the lack of access to medical care is bad. People wouldn’t go back to that, but the fact that everyone had to know how to do everything, created a people who were very self-reliant.”

“I wanted to create a community where someone like Moses would look around and say: There’s nowhere else I could go where I could be given a home, be accommodated like these people are being accommodated.

When I asked Crummey about his research for Sweetland, he told me about a thrilling cruise called Adventure Canada; a circumnavigation of Newfoundland. On this cruise, is an impressive cast of characters that changes for each trip. Some of the intelligentsia a passenger might brush shoulders with includes geologists, historians, anthropologists, biologists… There are also people from Newfoundland there from the cultural sector like musicians and writers.

One year – Michael Crummey was asked to be one of the cultural specialists. Crummey had never even seen the south coast before as it’s not accessible by car. The cruise is 10 days, and he’s just finished his fifth.

“Admittedly I’m not great on ships. It terrified me. But I thought – this is my shot, this is my chance. It’s just spectacular, getting to go into those communities over a period of years. My sense of what those places are like and how people live there is how I wrote this book.”

Inspiration for the island itself came from a real abandoned island; Baccalieu Island. Crummey’s wife is a wildlife biologist and frequently works on Baccalieu Island which lies just off the tip of Conception Bay. It even has an abandoned lighthouse and keeper’s house.

Baccalieu Island

In the second half of the novel, Moses is alone on the island. Crummey was nervous about “pulling it off,” as he puts it, but I found it flowed beautifully. The latter half had a pacing similar to that of Cormac McCarthy where the story is driven by the action. Occasionally, there will be a flashback, but it’s handled unapologetically. Crummey trusts his reader will come along for the ride.

As time goes by, however, the reader isn’t sure whether they can trust their narrator anymore. Moses has been alone for quite sometime, and things start happening that… aren’t right. This reminded me of Galore.

“It’s a… kind of, sort of companion to Galore – Galore started in a time before time, when the line between myth, lore legend and reality was blurred. The line between life and death was porous and you don’t know where it is. As Galore progresses, the community is pulled more and more into the real world and that line recedes. Sweetland starts in the present day community in crisis, but as you move into the second half, it drifts off into that mist where the world of Galore came from, where what’s real and not real and life and death is harder to place.”

I totally understood what Crummey meant, and if you’ve read both, or even just Galore, then you will, too. I liked being unsure at the end of Sweetland. I liked that the book was toying with my sense of adventure. It was asking me to use my imagination and trust that it had a plan, and I should come along for the ride.

There’s always that story around the campfire where someone has a friend who witnessed something unexplainable and it seems that in those moments of late night, flickering firelight, we can suspend our own beliefs and allow ourselves to wonder, “what if?” Crummey delicately recreates that atmosphere and leaves it to us to define what we believe. Without spoiling anything: the ending is ambiguous. I asked Crummey what he thought happened.

“I have my opinion of course, but just because I wrote the book doesn’t mean that’s the opinion that matters.”

When Crummey started writing Moses, he dropped in bits and pieces of his father’s life as he had grown up in a small community in Newfoundland. There are charming anecdotes in the book (the rooster, the pig) that come from true stories his father used to tell him. When he finished writing Sweetland, he realized that what Moses goes through in the second half of the novel is like someone facing a terminal illness. It’s about what he knows is coming, and how much he fights what he knows is coming. 12 years ago, Crummey watched his father die of cancer which he sees now influenced the book.

“The relocation is the set-up, but it’s about mortality – how we face it.”

All told, I urge you to read this book. Don’t read it on your daily commute, but really treat yourself to an early evening in bed or, better yet, a crisp morning at the cottage. Sweetland is a gritty story but not without heart. Crummey’s prose is delicate, yet sea-worthy. Do yourself a favour and get lost in the myth and legend of Newfoundland.

I’ve always wanted to go to St. John’s, so I made sure to ask Crummey where he takes friends when they come to visit:

The Rooms. “It’s the art gallery, the archives and the museum with the best view of the harbour.”
Signal Hill
The Ship Pub. “It’s a tiny bar down a lane-way. The vast majority of grants that have been given to writers in Newfoundland have been spent at the Ship…  lots of book launches, readings and fantastic bands there!”
Raymond’s. “It was called the best new restaurant in Canada when it opened 3 or 4 years ago. All local game and produce – delicious.”

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Carole Besharah says:

    Great post! I had no idea how much his father influenced the story. Sweetland is a brilliant read. I loved it.

  2. Rick says:

    I despise endings that settle nothing!

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