A beguiling combination of family history and autobiography, this first nonfiction work from Ontario novelist Johnston (The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, 1999) forms a revealing appendage to his own fictional works.
We are given the experiences of three generations of Johnstons in a carefully shaped narrative that blends together chronological history, the adult Johnston’s backward looks at his own childhood, and fictionalized reconstructions of quietly climactic moments in the lives of Johnston’s paternal grandfather Charlie and father Art. The former was a blacksmith and fisherman in “Ferryland,” the original name of the colony founded in the 1620s by England’s Lord Baltimore (the site of whose mansion, long since destroyed, is still sought by archaeologists and scholars). Art was a better educated, more opinionated sort who went away to college vowing to escape the hardships that had claimed Charlie, but ended up a “fish-preoccupied, fish-infatuated man” who would become a federal fisheries inspector. Their episodic stories are unified by the Johnstons’ (most especially Art’s) ongoing hatred of the “Confederation” (with mainland Canada, accomplished in 1947) and its avatar—the resourceful politician Joseph Smallwood—a theme echoed in such vivid sequences as young Wayne’s train journey across the province (in protest against “the first trans-island paved road” and the advent of buses) and a wistful description of the author’s leavetaking from home (for college, and the hope of becoming a writer). The book climaxes with Johnston’s movingly imagined re-creation of the “final days,” during which Charlie and Art separately (and dourly) await the dawning of Confederation, and with it the loss of their country’s independence and their awareness of their own powerlessness and mortality.
Johnston is a master of understatement wringing honest nostalgic emotion from simple declarative sentences. Here he offers a rich display of the rhetorical skills and heartfelt cultural recall that make his novels so enchanting and rewarding.