When Fiction and Real Life Collide

I’ve been absorbed and transported by Michael Crummey’s Sweetland, absorbed in the story, transported in memory back to my early days in Newfoundland a few years after the time the novel is set in, captivated not just by the story, and its stunning evocation of period and place and its capture of detail about Newfoundland outport life, but also because, reading it, I kept thinking – I was there, green from England, teaching music, speaking in a puzzling hard-to-follow foreign accent and reading that puzzlement on the faces of the students, at the same time as I struggled to understand them, as much a curiosity and a faranji at that spit end of the old outport life in Newfoundland as I was in Ethiopia years later.

Remnants of the last days of that outport life:

A trip up the bay to abandoned island communities with a friend who had grown up there, and whose father returned to spend every summer there, until the summer he refused to ‘come in’. Tumbledown wharfs, leaning fences, empty houses, glassless windows like accusing eyes.

The priest who gave me a ride to Gander in my first week in Newfoundland and railed all the way against the Smallwood resettlement programme, describing how he’d had to bring parishioners in from the islands to the mainland for medical attention because there were no longer any medical facilities on the islands.

Kids arriving at my door at supper time with a dish from Mom when I was living in Newfoundland alone, then standing silently in the doorway to watch me eat, as if suspicious I’d feed myself in as alien a way as I spoke.

Students visiting and watching in silence from the same doorway when (then) wife and baby arrived, watching these curiosities as if they came from outer space, strange adult beings with funny voices and a baby that looked surprisingly normal and even felt normal when, after being invited and urged to do what they so obviously wanted to do, to hold it (him), they took him and held him gingerly and tenderly, but still wary, who knew what strangeness lay beneath the swaddling blanket.

Visiting friends on Christmas morning and eating a Christmas morning snack of dried capelin.

All this as unforgettable as Sweetland.


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