The title of Michael Crummey’s new novel is the name of both the main character and the economically eclipsed Newfoundland outport island he inhabits. The story explores the extent to which one is indivisible from the other.
Crummey, the esteemed St. John’s author of novels, poetry, and short fiction, has narrowed the frame from his previous full-length fiction, Galore – a sprawling, myth-imbued epic about the early days of European settlement in coastal Newfoundland. ATVs and Internet service notwithstanding, the 21st-century residents of Sweetland are largely engaged in the same hardscrabble fight for survival that preoccupied their ancestors. The difference being that Galore depicts the advent of a way of life, while Sweetland draws the curtain on its end.
It’s a familiar tale: residents of a struggling rural community are offered money by outsiders to pull up stakes. Most are inclined to accept, but an intransigent loner threatens the deal. In this case, the wealthy outsider is not a faceless corporation but the Newfoundland government, and the objective is not to replace the settlement with a luxury resort but to shut it down altogether. The collapse of the cod fishery has rendered the island a burden to government bureaucrats anxious to cut their losses, but Moses Sweetland stands in the way.
Crummey’s novel in no way resembles a Hollywood treatment of this recognizable storyline. Sweetland (the place) is not a bucolic paradise threatened with despoliation. And Sweetland (the person) is not local-hero material. A former fisherman and lighthouse keeper on the verge of 70, Sweetland has never been married. He mostly keeps to himself, save for emotionally fraught interactions with a much younger, autistic relative.
This stubborn, uncompromising man’s motives are largely unknown, even to himself. It is in Crummey’s slow teasing out of Moses Sweetland’s personal history that the narrative derives its strength, depth, and humanity. It is also through this process that the novel’s protagonist – and its readers – are reminded of John Donne’s assertion that “no man is an island,” no matter the lengths he might take to set himself apart.