Baltimore's Mansion: A Memoir Paperback – Sep 26 2000
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In this forceful, complex memoir, Wayne Johnston returns to the setting of his 1999 novel, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. Johnston doesn't just come from Newfoundland, remotest of Canada's provinces; he comes from the Avalon Peninsula, the most isolated portion of Newfoundland (and confused in young Wayne's boyish imaginings with the mythical Avalon, where King Arthur sailed to be healed of mortal wounds). It's an apt metaphor for a land that "was the edge of the known world, and looked it." Avalon's natives fiercely resented the 1948 referendum that joined Newfoundland to the Canadian Confederation--especially Johnston's father, the memoir's central character, who keens for lost independence in a manner highly reminiscent of Stephen Dedalus's father in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Indeed, parallels with Ireland are evident throughout, not just because the Johnstons are descended from Irish immigrants but because the Newfoundlanders exhibit a similar passionate insularity and zest for feuding among themselves. Johnston's muscular, plainspoken prose bears little resemblance to that of James Joyce, but his themes of exile and loss, loyalty and betrayal, and an ancient culture's ambivalent relationship with modernity resonate with the great writer's most urgent concerns. --Wendy Smith
From Publishers Weekly
Returning to the Newfoundland trenchantly chronicled in his acclaimed recent novel The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Johnston has crafted a sensitive, occasionally elusive memoir centered on three generations of men in his family. As in the novel, Newfoundland's "thirty thousand square miles of bogs and barrens" prove an affecting backdrop. His grandfather eked out a living as a blacksmithAa dying profession in the tiny town of FerrylandAwhile his father, Arthur, trained as an agricultural technician but became a "fish-preoccupied, fish-infatuated man" who took a job as a codfish industry inspector for the Fisheries of Canada. Striking passages recount Arthur's routine days spent tasting cod in a laboratory, returning home unable to bear the sight or smell of fish, and his travels around the province shutting down revoltingly unkempt processing plants. Johnston remains preoccupied with the fierce debates over the former British colony's 1948 confederation with Canada, a stinging defeat for his father and others who yearned for an independent Newfoundland nation. That bitterly contested vote, which saddled the province with billions of dollars of debt and hastened the demise of its rich, insular culture, also gives rise to this memoir's central mystery: an enigmatic family secret that darkened the relationship between Johnston's father and grandfather. Apparently a dispute over loyalty to Newfoundland, this betrayal-tinged affair seems somewhat contrived as the book's emotional touchstone and remains a disconcerting false note in an otherwise skillfully composed reminiscence. (June)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
After that, it was fairly smooth sailing. The story was still a bit choppy in parts, but overall, worthwhile.
Johnston’s lyrical and visual portrait of New Foundland is breathtaking and at times, bleak. This is not just a memoir of Johnston’s ancestors and family, but of New Foundland and it’s history.
However, sending it to me with the delay of 5 days,
didn't allow me to read it in time for my book discussion
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
About the loss of communication between generations.
About the loss of a proud nation when its citizens, by the slimmest of margins, voted to be assimilated into Canada.
And about the loss of opportunity to lay to rest family ghosts and unresolved questions.
Unlike his novel "The Colony of Unrequited Dreams", Johnston's memoir is episodic and compartmentalized. The underlying theme is the anguish felt by so many Newfoundlanders when they were forced to choose in a referendum between remaining an independent country or casting in their lot with Canada.
We experience that anguish through the relationships between generations.
There is Johnston's grandfather, an outport blacksmith who carries a secret about the referendum to his grave.
There is Johnston's father, a reluctant federal civil servant who rarely misses an opportunity to bemoan Newfoundland's merger with Canada and berate those who voted for it.
And there is Johnston himself, who is so conflicted about his relationship with his father and grandfather, and with his native Newfoundland, that he can only write about it by leaving.
"Baltimore's Mansion" is most successful in its marvelous vignettes: a nearly disastrous trip into the country to cut ice from a pond, a ride across the island on a much-loved but hopelessly inefficient passenger train about to be taken out of service by the Canadian government, the last enigmatic meeting on the beach between Johnston's father and grandfather, and Johnston's own confrontation with a howling winter storm on a remote island where he has retreated to come to terms with what he wants to write.
Each is a short story unto itself and full of vividly descriptive writing.
"Baltimore's Mansion" also has moments of humour, but the lasting sense is one of regret. Regret for the lost intimacy of small harbours and houses, regret for questions unasked and words left unspoken, regret for a time that was that will never be again.
While this must have been a difficult book to write, it is a pleasure to read: full of character, atmosphere and a sharp sense of what was lost when Newfoundland surrendered its nationhood.
The prose of this book is rich it is thick and dense. I intend that comment in only the most positive manner. There is nothing extraneous as you read, every sentence is important; this book is as long as it needs to be, no more or no less. I always had the impression the Author chose each word or phrase he wrote carefully and with purpose. The writing needs no embellishment it is precise and honest.
The book is about change, about change that is often not wanted, about progress that is anything but, rather it is a series of events that strips away a people's identity, the ground their homes are built upon, the jobs they have known for generations, and ultimately the Families themselves.
The damage and dislocation that is suffered that is external is magnified by secrets and thought kept hidden for decades that if shared would have changed the lives of these Families. The book is about regret, missed opportunities, and an unwillingness to accept change that goes beyond simply sad to truly painful and destructive.
I recently read "No Great Mischief" and while no 2 Authors are alike, I believe if you have read and enjoyed either you will enjoy them both.
Whether describing an event that will change the course of a people, or of a young man sweeping away the imprints of horseshoes that do not bear his Father's mark (a Rose), the Author shows with great clarity the similarities and the futility of going against the tide.
As to those who were on the "Winning" side as always the Author states it best, "We won, we won and nothing you can say can change that fact, and nothing makes victory sweeter than the enduring bitterness of men like you." The man being referred to here is the Author's Father.