NAMED A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR BY THE CBC
WINNER OF THE 2023 LEACOCK MEDAL FOR HUMOUR
Consummate storyteller and bestselling novelist Wayne Johnston reaches back into his past to bring us a sad, tender and at times extremely funny memoir of his Newfoundland boyhood.
For six months between 1966 and 1967, Wayne Johnston and his family lived in a wreck of a house across from his grandparents in Goulds, Newfoundland. At seven, Wayne was sickly and skinny, unable to keep food down, plagued with insomnia and a relentless cough that no doctor could diagnose, though they had already removed his tonsils, adenoids and appendix. To the neighbours, he was known as “Jennie’s boy,” a backhanded salute to his tiny, ferocious mother, who felt judged for Wayne’s condition at the same time as worried he might never grow up.
Unable to go to school, Wayne spent his days with his witty, religious, deeply eccentric maternal grandmother, Lucy. During these six months of Wayne’s childhood, he and Lucy faced two life-or-death crises, and only one of them lived to tell the tale.
Jennie’s Boy is Wayne’s tribute to a family and a community that were simultaneously fiercely protective of him and fed up with having to make allowances for him. His boyhood was full of pain, yes, but also tenderness and Newfoundland wit. By that wit, and through love—often expressed in the most unloving ways—Wayne survived.
About the author
Wayne Johnston is the author of several novels. He has won many prestigious awards for his work including the Books in Canada First Novel Award for his debut novel, The Story of Bobby O'Malley, the Canadian Authors Association Award for Most Promising Young Writer, and the Thomas Head Raddall Fiction Award for The Divine Ryans. Both The Colony of Unrequited Dreams and The Navigator of New York spent extended periods of time on bestseller lists in Canada and have also been published in the US, Britain, Germany, Holland, China and Spain. Colony was identified by the Globe and Mail newspaper as one of the 100 most important Canadian books ever produced (including both fiction and non-fiction).
- Winner, Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour
Excerpt: Jennie's Boy: A Newfoundland Childhood (by (author) Wayne Johnston)
Jennie and Dad worked in town, where we had lived for awhile, but we could not afford to live there anymore, so we were going back to where we came from with our tails between our legs.
My parents would have to go back to riding a yellow bus to work because two men had come and taken our car, which, because of something Dad had done, we couldn’t afford anymore. The men had come in their own car, but one man got out and climbed into our car, and then they drove both cars off while the neighbours watched from the windows of the house across the street. A shameful sight that Jennie said no one would ever forget.
We were gathered in the kitchen just as we had gathered in many other kitchens before we’d had to leave a house for good because Dad had spent the rent. “I may as well tell you the truth straight out,” Jennie said, as if she had managed to keep the truth from us until now, but she’d be damned if she would gild the lily yet again for a man like Dad.
Dad had spent the rent in some bar that was close to where we lived. It was bad enough that he’d spent the rent, Jennie said, but to do it right under our noses was an all-time low. We’d barely been in St. John’s long enough to afford to get aphone installed, and we’d have to pay for it for the next month, but we wouldn’t be there to hear it ring or use it to ring someone else. She hadn’t even memorized the number yet.
Dad said it was just a phone, not a family heirloom. But then he admitted he was guilty for what the rest of us would soon have to endure because of him. We might as well convict him in advance. He was no good and never had been and never would be, he insisted, and his wife deserved a better husband, and his four boys a better father. He insisted on it as if he saw more clearly than Jennie ever could the disappointment to her that he was. Dad continued to expound on his utter worthlessness, as if he was giving someone else the dressing-down they long had coming to them until, at last, Jennie relented and told him he was being too hard on himself. Soon, they were both heaping contempt on some nebulous, sinister enemy who didn’t know a good man when they saw one, some universal agency of opposition that was forever thwarting the modest plans of decent men like Art Johnston.
Dad said he would be shamefully on display throughout the journey tomorrow from St. John’s back to the would-be hamlet we had abandoned just three months earlier. Our old neighbours would say that Art Johnston had found out the hard way that he was no better than anyone else in the place whose very name he so disliked that he refused to use it.
But then he went back to insisting that it was all his fault, and this time the four of us boys—Ken, Craig, me, and my little brother, Brian—joined Jennie in defending him from himself, contradicting him when he said we would never have a decent home as long as we were stuck with him.
“You’re being too hard on yourself, honey,” Jennie said, and the four of us said that she was right, that it wasn’t his fault that the world was full of bad men who took advantage of the good, that there was no lower you could go than to be a landlord who cared about nothing but the rent. A landlord was a man who lorded it over others.
Dad shifted sides again and told us of the landlords he had known, heartless men who turned families out on the street in the middle of winter. He had been under the thumb of dozens of them, he said, but never ceased to be amazed by their ruthlessness and trickery. But the day was coming, he promised us, a better day, when nothing we owned would be seized by landlords because we couldn’t pay the rent.
“That day might be just around the corner,” Jennie said, and we all nodded and huddled around Dad and told him you never knew when good times were coming, when your luck was bound to change. It wasn’t as if he had it easy. Raising four boys was hard enough, but when one of those boys was more trouble than the other three combined, it might as well be seven or eight that he was taking care of. He looked at me and I tried to smile.
“It’s not Wayne’s fault, either,” Dad said. If truth be told, it was only because of bad luck that the deck was stacked against us, not because of him and me. Soon the others were all conceding that it wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t the fault of his wife or the rest of his children. None of us could help how we were born.
Still, by this time, everyone was huddled around me, and I was crying and promising to do my best with what I had. I couldn’t be blamed for all the things that were wrong with me, nor could Jennie, any more than Jennie’s mother could be blamed for having a daughter who’d had a boy like me.
I was seven that November when we were tossed from our apartment in St. John’s. I had lived in twenty houses by then.I don’t remember a lot of them, but most of them were scattered along a couple of roads in a place called the Goulds, about an hour away from town. It wasn’t much of a place, not even a village, but it was where Jennie was born and where her parents, Lucy and Ned, still lived, on Petty Harbour Road. On that last night in town, Jennie said she remembered all the houses. She said she could give you directions to the bathroom in almost any house on Petty Harbour Road. It wasn’t much to brag about, but it was true.
We boys never knew when we were leaving or exactly where we were moving next, just that we were always one car breakdown or appliance repair away from having an eviction notice slipped beneath our door in the middle of the night by a landlord who, Dad said, was too gutless to look him in the eye.
“Too gutless,” Craig said.
“We don’t always have a car,” Dad said, “but we always have Wayne, and there’s no telling when he’ll have to be repaired."
WINNER OF THE 2023 LEACOCK MEDAL FOR HUMOUR
NAMED A BEST CANADIAN NONFICTION BOOK OF THE YEAR BY THE CBC
Stunning. . . . A compressed, restrained account of a life lived on the edge, not only in poverty, but at the cusp of mortality. . . . Never overblown or sentimental, Jennie’s Boy is as vivid as one’s own memories, a glimpse into a past of pain and wonder, of loss and joy.” —Toronto Star
"Johnston recounts his childhood with affection and humor. . . . A tender memoir." —Kirkus Reviews
“Beautifully written ("Lucy's eyes were as dark as burnt raisins"), Jennie’s Boy is an excellent example of narrative nonfiction that captures the reader's attention and doesn't let go until the book's apposite ending.” Booklist
“Moving . . . funny. . . . Jennie’s Boy is a warm memoir that recalls a childhood year filled with difficulties, but also a family’s love.” —Foreword Reviews
“All I have ever done,” Wayne Johnston writes in Jennie's Boy, his account of growing up dirt-poor in Newfoundland, “is repeat what I was told.” Be grateful for that: the result is a story so vibrant and detailed you don't read it so much as you race along and relive it, blow by staggering blow. The man is incapable of writing a dull sentence. The Johnstons of Newfoundland are poorer than Steinbeck's Joads, funnier than the McCourts of Angela's Ashes, and every bit as worthy as material. Which makes sense: there was no place on earth quite like bottomed-out Newfoundland, and there is no better book about it than this one. A brilliant and unforgettable story told by one of the masters of Canadian literature.” —Ian Brown
“I have been a Wayne Johnston fan since my teens. His books are the ones that showed me that my own backyard was worth writing about. In Jennie’s Boy, a glorious tale of bedmobiles and jug baths drawn from his own life, he showed me what was behind closed doors just up the road from me. Like the best Newfoundland storytellers do, he made me laugh and then pause to think of how we can find love and joy in a most untraditional childhood.” —Alan Doyle
“Wayne Johnston’s childhood in Newfoundland was full of laughter, pain and poverty. And then laughter again. His memoir, Jennie’s Boy, is an uplifting account of a childhood not just survived—he came close to death too many times to count—but triumphed over. Thank god he lived to tell the tale.” —Rick Mercer
Other titles by Wayne Johnston
The Mystery of Right and Wrong
First Snow, Last Light
The Son of a Certain Woman
A World Elsewhere
Old Lost Land of Newfoundland, The
Family, Memory, Fiction, and Myth