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Michael Crummey

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Michael Crummey and the archeology of belonging

Michael Crummey explores the ties that bind a community together in his follow-up to Galore

(photo: Arielle Hogan)

(photo: Arielle Hogan)

There’s a greeting among Newfoundlanders that is exchanged upon first meeting, deployed in place of job-related small talk or determinations of mutual friends: “Who do you belong to?” It’s a deeper, more existential line of questioning, one that cuts to the core of islander identity. To be from Newfoundland is to be of Newfoundland, a link in a generations-­long chain firmly anchored to the bedrock by blood but also by memory.

This archaeology of belonging underpins the latest novel by author, poet, and Newfoundland chronicler Michael Crummey. Sweetland tells the story of Moses Sweetland, a former fisherman and retired lighthouse keeper who shares his name with a remote island off the south coast of Newfoundland, which he refuses to leave amidst government-enforced resettlement. Eventually, a tragic accident drives Sweetland to fake his own death in order to skirt the government’s plan.

Sweetland follows Crummey’s 2009 Governor General’s Literary Award–nominated novel Galore (and last year’s poetry collection, Under the Keel), which flirted with magical realism and biblical archetypes in 19th-century Newfoundland. In contrast, Sweetland’s present-day setting marks something of a departure, down to its aging island inhabitants’ grudging adoption of the Internet and Sweetland’s frequent Skype video-chat sessions with his grandnephew. But while the novel is firmly rooted in the now, the past, as the author points out, is always very present in Newfoundland.

“We still have a visceral connection to a world that feels ancient,” says Crummey of his fellow Newfoundlanders, descendants of fishers and mariners whose parents or grandparents might have experienced a life not far removed from that of their ancestors two or three hundred years prior. The sudden, jolting onset of modernity reverberates still.

Crummey suggests there’s a sense of loss and longing in that backward glance. “I realized a while ago that loss is my subject: either cultural loss, or personal loss,” he says. Both are explored in Sweetland’s oddball cast of characters, each of whom is resigned to the rewritten fates that await them away from their tiny community, whose insular existence has bound them together. Now, they must find new ways of belonging.

The novel’s setting occurred to Crummey while on an Adventure Canada–­sponsored circumnavigation of Newfoundland in 2008, his first encounter with the island’s southern coast. It’s an area that’s difficult to get to, and which has been bled dry over the better part of the past century due to the decline in small-scale fishing. Government payouts to resettle residents of these dwindling, isolated enclaves into population hubs as far west as Alberta have been a reality since the 1950s; the recent, well-profiled resettlement request by Newfoundland’s Little Bay Islands community loosely mirrors the proceedings laid out in Crummey’s novel. But the author insists his book is less concerned with the minutiae of relocation than with interrogating mortality and how we create meaning from what will inevitably be gone.

“We all face the same situation that Sweetland faces, eventually, where we lose everything we love,” he says. “It’s almost like the story of a person with a fatal disease.” Sweetland’s efforts to come to grips with the twin losses of place and people, Crummey suggests, roughly map out the five stages of grief. Initial denial and anger eventually give way to a kind of acceptance.

It’s an acceptance won by tending graves and honouring ghosts, by remembering to whom Sweetland belongs. The backwards glance becomes a triumph over temporality; by honouring the past, its figures escape the fate of being gone and forgotten.

To Crummey, the utmost heartbreak of Newfoundland’s emptied settlements is the generations of relics left behind. “By staying,” he says, “Sweetland’s trying to be truthful to those people.”