This summer my book club kept finding irresistible gems to read. Last month it was The Martian by Andy Weir, and this month we were lucky enough to discuss Sweetland by Michael Crummey. The plot of this story is quite timely and intriguing: a remote island community in Newfoundland (crippled by the loss of the commercial fishery) is offered a government compensation package to relocate. The twist to the story is that everyone on the island must agree to leave.
Enter Moses Sweetland, a complex character who appears to be an irascible curmudgeon bent on refusing the compensation package desired by his community members. The novel ultimately becomes a survival story, as extenuating circumstances propel Moses to use all his guile and strength to survive as the island’s sole resident. I was inclined to describe Moses as heroic rather than selfish in his fight to survive against the odds.
The politics of relocation is fascinating in itself. I would recommend the discussion guide prepared by the Amnesty International book club to understand the historical background of the resettlement idea. Resettlement was instituted by the Smallwood government in the 1950s in an effort to propel the province into the twentieth century. There was no affordable way to deliver modern conveniences such as roads and electricity, as well as health and education services to all the isolated communities that are spread apart in such a vast coastline area.
The sentiment that burned bright for me throughout the novel was the importance of family, however impractical and infuriating. Familial love has the power to change minds, induce major life change, and heroic action. Moses connection to his great-nephew Jesse is touching and transformative. At one point, Moses asks his niece Clara if he can look in on the sleeping Jesse. This paragraph struck me as particularly powerful and poetic:
The pyjamas made him look hopelessly vulnerable in his bed, his limbs like pale shoots growing out of the fabric, the smooth expanse of his belly exposed…Jesse’s face was turned toward the door but angled unnaturally up toward the headboard. He looked like he’d fallen from a height, dropped from a rooftop or a headland and come to rest in a mangled posture. Sweetland wanted to ease the boy’s arms back down his sides, to straighten the leg crooked against the wall. He wanted to lie down awhile and listen to him breathe.
The book is filled with quirky characters that made me laugh aloud. Duke Fewer opens a barbershop (a one-room shed) having never cut hair in his life, and no one was willing to sit in his chair for anything but conversation and a chess game (Duke played the white and never lost). The dialogue is pitch-perfect and you will be treated to some delightful expressions like the observation that most writers churning out books on Newfoundland don’t know “their arse from a dory.” Well, Michael Crummey does…and he has written a book you don’t want to miss!
As there appeared to be no publisher-prepared reader’s guide and discussion questions for Sweetland, book clubs may be interested in the discussion questions that Guelph Public Library collected and produced:
1.Do you think Moses was selfish when he faked his own death and stayed behind?
2.Moses isn’t always a friendly or nice man, but he is “good” in his core. When do we see examples of his goodness?
3.Do you think Moses Sweetland actually died? If so, when?
4.What are the novel’s major themes?
5.Is this a political novel? Did anyone investigate the history behind the resettlement?
6.What secrets are revealed in the novel?
7.This novel is split into two sections. Which do you think is the most successful and why?
8.The novel is filled with quirky characters. Do you have a favourite?
9.Did this book end in a celebratory way?
10.What makes Newfoundland’s culture distinctive?
11.As well as a fiction writer, Michael Crummey is
also a poet. Did you feel there were poetic elements in Sweetland?
12.Would you have left Harbour Deep?
13.What do you know about the author?
***Michael Crummey is a featured author at the 2015 Eden Mills Writers’ Festival. Michael will be reading at Rivermead as part of the celebration of Brick Books’ 40 years of publishing great Canadian poetry. Plan to attend the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival on Sunday, September 13th, 2015. See the Festival website for complete details.
If you like Sweetland, I would recommend viewing:
Rare Birds, starring William Hurt (Comedy)
The owner of a failing gourmet restaurant in a small Newfoundland town finds his fortunes changing when his neighbor Alphonse comes up with an unlikely scheme: he stages the sighting of an extremely rare bird, and soon birdwatchers from around the world are flocking to the area. However, Alphonse has other secret plans that are sure to cause trouble. – summary provided by distributor