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Baltimore’s Mansion

by Wayne Johnston

“An island to someone who has never left it is the world. An island to someone who has never seen it does not exist.” That quote from Wayne Johnston’s evocative new memoir, Baltimore’s Mansion, succinctly describes how the author’s independence-minded Newfoundland ancestors viewed their world. It also speaks volumes about the way much of the outside world has viewed, and to an extent still views, the small but mighty province known as The Rock.

Writing about place is a literary cliché, but it fits this work very well. I’ve never been to Newfoundland, but at about the halfway point in this book I began to smell the smells, hear the lilt, and experience a sense of the fierce attachment Newfoundlanders feel to their home province no matter where they live.

It’s fitting that the love and loyalty of family is the metaphor in Johnston’s story because those traits exemplify the bond these islanders feel, to each other and to the land and sea that define their character.

And as in most families, there are conflicts. In the case of three generations of the Johnston family, opposition to Newfoundland joining Confederation has been a powerful uniting force. But in a mysterious way, that long-ago battle also spawned a family secret that came between Johnston’s grandfather and his father, and casts a shadow still a generation later.

The Johnstons lived on Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula, a world unto itself that clings to the main island by a thread of land so thin you can stand in the middle and see both sides. Names like the Gaze, the Downs, the Pool, Ferryland Head, and Hare’s Ears give this insular place a mythical aura.

The Avalon has history. Lord Baltimore tried to start a colony on Ferryland in 1620, but abandoned his mission and his mansion after one hard winter. The area later became a Catholic colony, home of the famous blacksmith Charlie Johnston, Wayne’s grandfather and a fierce opponent of Joey Smallwood’s scheme to join Canada. When the referendum was called, Charlie even wanted to declare his beloved Avalon a country separate from Newfoundland.

The Johnstons’ story, told here with great warmth and humour, is much about leaving. This poignant imperative has defined Newfoundland societies all the way back to Lord Baltimore, who left his dreams behind because he couldn’t cope with the weather. Smallwood’s dreams of grandeur didn’t come true either, and later generations left because of economic necessity.