People often ask me for book suggestions, but I usually find that only a few titles stick with me over the year. One of those, and one of the best reads of 2014, is Sweetland by Newfoundland author, Michael Crummey. From the first sentence, I knew I was going to love the story and the experience of reading it.
Sweetland opens with fisherman, Moses Sweetland, navigating through dense fog when he happens upon a drifting boat of half-frozen refugees. He tows them to the shore of his remote Newfoundland island, also called Sweetland, named after his Swedish ancestors.
Time skips forward from that fateful day when Moses rescued the Sri Lankans. The lighthouse he tended has been automated, and the fish stocks devastated. There is nothing much on the island for the remaining aging residents, but still, it’s their home and their community.
When a government man takes the ferry in to offer those remaining island residents a resettlement package, it brings sorrow and strife. They all agree to move — except for Moses Sweetland. The problem is that no residents get money for the move unless they all agree to go.
Sweetland is an amazing exploration of the concept of relocation. It looks at it from all angles and points of view. From the rough necks working in Fort McMurray, who fly back to jump at the unexpected windfall, to an aging rancher who is broken by the decision to leave.
Although set in a remote Newfoundland outpost, Sweetland made me consider all kinds of relocations — from the closing of a neighbourhood school to a community transfer such as Davis Inlet — and the lasting effects on those who are forced to go.
It’s not always a wrong choice to pick up and move a community. It’s just that it’s never simple. Breaking apart the soul of the community and turning neighbours into strangers can have ramifications that last for generations.
Sweetland is stuffed with beautifully humorous language and wonderfully odd characters – a barbershop owner who has never cut one head of hair, and an old woman who hasn’t left her house since she was a child, except to smoke and pretend to read books while sitting on her front stoop.
Moses Sweetland doesn’t want to abandon everything he has built up on this island because, as an old man, it makes it too difficult to answer the questions: “Did my life have meaning? And what has any of it meant?” I hated to reach the last pages of the book – feeling complicit in leaving Moses Sweetland behind, closing the cover on his island and relegating it to the past. It’s no wonder this darkly comic novel was on this year’s short list for a Governor General’s award for literature.
Heather Allen is a book reviewer living in Penticton.