About the Author

Wayne Johnston

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).

Books by this Author
A World Elsewhere
Excerpt

Landish Druken lived in the two-room attic of a house near the end of Dark Marsh Road that was in no way remindful of any other place he’d ever lived. A mile away, in a twelve-room house, his father lived alone. Under the terms of what Landish called the Sartorial Charter, his father had let him keep his clothes but had otherwise disowned him. When he was too hungry and sober to sleep, he walked the edge of the marsh in the dark, smoking the last of his cigars, following the road to where it narrowed to a path that led into the woods.
 
He had gone to Princeton, where father-made men spent fathermade fortunes. Now they were back home, learning the modern form of alchemy, the transmutation of sums of money into greater sums of money. He’d told them that this was, at best, all they would ever accomplish.“Whereas,” he’d said, “I will write a book that will put in their places everyone who has ever lived. It may take me as long as a month, but I will not falter.”
 
It was five years since he’d made the boast and he’d yet to write a word that he could resist the urge to burn.
 
He’d had but one real friend at Princeton, Padgett Vanderluyden, who went by Van. They’d met while Landish was sitting on one of the benches that ran along both sides of the path that led from the centre of the quad to the steps of Nassau Hall, smoking a cigar under a gauntlet of oak trees from which a steady shower of leaves fell despite the lack of wind. Van had sat down beside him.
 
Landish’s first impressions had been vague ones—pale, thin, elegantly dressed. He turned and saw his benchmate in profile: a pale, unblemished face, the sort of vein-marbled temples Landish had always associated with fragility and even weakness in men. Removing a cigarette case from inside his coat, the young man opened it and offered it to Landish until he noticed his cigar. His hands shook so badly he almost dropped the case.
 
“You’ve chosen the only occupied bench on the quad,” Landish said. The fellow held his cigarette between his third and fourth fingers, pressing his whole palm against his face as he inhaled. His body shook and his lips trembled though the day was unseasonably warm. Landish wondered if he might be ill.
 
“I’m Padgett Vanderluyden,” he said as he looked away from Landish. “Van, I like to be called. And you are Landish Druken. I hope you don’t like to go by ‘Lan.’ That wouldn’t do. Van and Lan.” He attempted to laugh but wound up coughing smoke out through his nose and mouth. Landish, the back-of-beyonder who scored unaccountably high grades in all his courses but was not, and was never to be, affiliated with any of the clubs, had been sought out by a Vanderluyden. Vanderluyden. Landish felt like demanding that the fellow prove it by presenting his credentials.
 
But then Van made the first of several odd admissions: he had stayed up half the night rehearsing what he would say to Landish. “I didn’t want to come unarmed. But I’ve forgotten everything that I rehearsed.”
 
“You stayed up all night preparing to meet me?”
 
“Yes, I did.”
 
“It was smart of you to choose a battle of wits. If you’d used your hands, you might not be nearly so gracious, or conscious, in defeat.”
 
 “You see? How am I supposed to answer that?”
 
Van’s voice quavered so badly that Landish felt a tinge of regret for having spoken to him as he had. He extended his hand and Van shook it. Van next told him that his sister, Vivvie, had died just shy of the age of two. “I had a breakdown over it. I’m thought by everyone, including my father, to be inherently given to breaking down. My father once told me that I would be presumed guilty until I was pronounced dead. Here you are now conspicuously sharing a bench with me in front of witnesses.”
 
“Guilty of what? Witnesses to what?”
 
Van told him he was joking.
 
“Well, at least you acknowledge having parents. Most of the fellows here never speak of whatever predecess pool they crawled out of.”
 
“All night I tried and could not come up with one line as good as that. I am not only not quick-witted—I have no wit at all.”
 
“You’re very forthright,” Landish said. “Sometimes it takes more nerve to be forthright than to be wittily ironic. I keep people at a distance with my wit and wind up in solitude—that is not always as splendid as it seems.”
 
Van smiled and blushed.
 
Noticing his embarrassed expression, Landish was again about to amend his remark when he noticed a man sitting on a bench on the opposite side of the walkway, six benches along perhaps. He sat side on, smoking a cigarette, staring at them. Not even when Landish’s eyes met his did he look away. He wore an overcoat and gloves and his hat lay on the bench beside him. He seemed to squint appraisingly at Landish. Even now, on Dark Marsh Road, eighteen months since Princeton, Landish found himself looking over his shoulder, especially at night, to see if he was being followed by Van’s bodyguard, Mr. Trull. “I don’t need a bodyguard,” Van had said. “But my father wants people to think I do. Mr. Trull used to be a Pinkerton.”
 
Mr. Trull, who carried two pistols, stayed out of eavesdropping range but followed Van and Landish everywhere, unselfconsciously conspicuous, a cigarette-smoking sentinel, staring at the ground. Landish imagined him running towards them, a pistol in each hand.
 
Van had declared himself. How odd. I want us to be friends. Landish knew that he would have graduated Princeton without ever having made a friend if such a declaration had had to come from him. For most of his time at Princeton, he had thought he would remember their meeting as one of the great events of his life.
 
The closest thing to work Van had ever done was ride a horse. He said he was a good rider and asked what sort of rider Landish was. Landish said he would let him know as soon as he found out.
 
Landish sat alone, in silence, in the taverns of St. John’s, spending the hundred dollars in “compensation” that had recently arrived from Van. Other than that word typed on a piece of paper, there had been no note of explanation, nothing but the money. He had thought of— and then thought better of—sending it back.
 
He drank and considered the bargain he had made with his father: send me to Princeton for four years and I will return and give you the balance of my life. The real terms of the bargain were: send me to Princeton so that, for four years, I can pretend that I am not the son of a sealing captain, pretend the man who paid my way does not exist, and I will come back and follow in your footsteps, low though my opinion be of where they lead. Four years of hoping against hope that something will come up so that I don’t have to do for a living what the father I’m ashamed of did to pay my way through Princeton.
 
When Landish told his father that he wished to be a novelist instead of the skipper of a sealing ship, his father said that a novel was about people who never lived and all the things they never did.
 
Captain Druken had first taken his son with him to the hunt when Landish was twelve. Landish had sailed on the Gilbert many times by then. Short trips, mostly in the summer. His father began to teach him about the sea long before he stepped on a boat. Landish’s maiden voyage was in a dory that the boy rowed out to the Gilbert. He still remembered how it felt, an inch or two of wood between the water and his feet. It was like standing on a sea-surrounded seesaw.
 
He’d never been swimming. His father had forbidden it. He said that knowing how to swim would do him no good if he fell into what he called “real water.” It would only make him less afraid of it and someday that might lead to carelessness and mean his death.
 
“The water is your enemy,” he said. “It has things you want that you will have to take from it by force. It will give you nothing and no matter how little you take from it, it wants nothing in exchange except your life.”
 
When Landish finished high school, he had come to imagine for himself a life other than the one that he was born to.
 
“You were born with sea legs,” his father said. “You can’t go against your nature. You can walk the Gilbert in rough weather day or night as well as any sailor. And make your way across the ice as well as any sealer. I didn’t teach you that. It can’t be taught. I’ve seen you in a storm of freezing spray, your hands bare so that you could better feel the wheel, your knuckles blood red from the cold. And look at you. The size of you. You could stand eye to eye with any horse.
 
Hands and fists as big as mine. As broad across the shoulders as the doorway of a church. A head so big it should be on a statue. You need a chair for each half of your arse. And you think you were bred for writing books?”
 
Landish couldn’t help but like Van who, minutes after they met, had confessed that he was widely regarded as a “dud.”
 
“My father thinks I’m one,” he said.
 
Who better than the richest man in the world to spy out a dud among his children?
 
But Van said he was going to surprise everyone by doing something “big” with his life.
 
Landish had doubted it. He guessed that not every graduate from Princeton would practise the modern form of alchemy. It was true of some that the more generations removed they were from the source of their wealth, the less able and inclined they became to increase or maintain that wealth. Landish called it the Law of Layabout Descendants. Van said he was going to build, “cause to be built,” a great house in North Carolina.
 
Landish told him that, when he was nine, he had caused a campfire to be built and then caused it to be lit.
 
Van said, “I discovered the site of the house in 1887. The excavations are completed. I plan to live there, alone if I have to, far enough from Manhattan to forget the place. It may sound morbid, but I have to wait for my inheritance to begin the main work.”
 
It was 1893. Van was building Vanderland now. Landish had read about it in a week-old edition of the New York Times. The Carolina Castle, it was called in the article. There had been a picture of Van reclining on the forest floor at the feet of a team of famous architects and engineers. Van, his elder by several years, looking his age at last. Landish bought drinks for those of his tavern mates who were not afraid to ask him to. They must have thought he was spending Druken money, that his father had relented.
 
By the time Landish’s story had made it back from Princeton to St. John’s, there were many versions of it, in all of which he had cheated, not to help a friend but to keep from flunking out.
 
The full four years at Princeton and he came away with nothing, people said. The Druken who imagined he was born to a better fate than captain of a sealing ship. After so many Drukens went scot-free for greater crimes, their name was ruined because it was proved that the family’s first intellectual, the would-be man of letters and refinement, had cheated on a test. The shame was that so many Drukens had died of old age in warm beds before the boy that brought them down was even born.
 
“You have been played for a fool,” his father said. “Come back to the world in which you count for something. It doesn’t bother me that you didn’t graduate. It doesn’t bother me why you didn’t. If cheating at school is the worst thing you ever do, you’ll be the first saint in the family. I gave you your four years. You said that you would give me the balance of your life.”
 
But Landish told him he would never set foot on a sealing ship again. “So it doesn’t matter that you cheated your own father. It only matters that some rich man cheated you. Because I deserve to be cheated and you don’t?”
 
His father was right. That was how Landish had squared it with his conscience. A necessary transgression by a son against his ignoble father to achieve a noble end—which might never be achieved. But he could make amends only by relenting to a life that would destroy him. Even had he been inclined to look for one, he could not have found a job aboard a ship or on the waterfront. Neither his father’s associates nor his enemies would have anything to do with him. His father was the last Druken who could afford not to care what people thought of him. He applied to every newspaper in the city for a job. He sent in samples of his writing and they sent them back.
 
He found employment in a beggars-can’t-be-choosers kind of school. One day he went there drunk and fell asleep. He woke up to find that all his students had left, his classroom was dark and empty, and a note of dismissal was pinned to the pocket of his coat. Van had told him of the rhyme which other boys used to chant when they saw him: “Padgy Porgie, pudding and pie/Killed the girl who made him cry/When the boys came out to play/Padgy Porgie ran away.”
 
 “Killed?” Landish said.
 
“One of the rumours is that I so hated my infant sister for supplanting me as the baby of the family that I did away with her and that it was all hushed up by my father. It’s absurd, but there you are.”
 
There you are. The under-built, slender-built Vanderluyden who his father said could not look their lowest servant in the eye, the dud with the long, pale, slender fingers that bent back to touch his wrists, was said to have killed his sister out of spite.
 
When Van’s father died, he left Van six million dollars, as well as stocks and properties worth about four million. Each of his three older brothers got ten times as much.
 
Ten million. Henry Vanderluyden’s notion of disownment. “I get it after I graduate. I will sink all of it into Vanderland if I have to.”
 
“I should marry for money,” Landish said. “No worries then about making a living as a writer. Matrimoney.”
 
“My mother married for it.”
 
“Your grandfather made a name for himself. Your father bought one.”
 
“As I suppose I shall have to someday.”
 
In the attic on Dark Marsh Road, Landish calculated that had he been thus disowned, he could have given his landlord a seven-hundred-andfifty- trillion-year advancement on the rent.
 
Though Van had all his life been mocked and hectored by his father, his death left Van so dejected that Landish thought he might fall ill. One day, as they passed a haberdashery, he pointed and said: “Full fathom five thy father lies/those are pants that were his size.”
 
He was ridiculously pleased when Van, finally, could not suppress a smile. In the middle of his junior year in the spring of 1890, Landish moved out of his dorm room and into Van’s house in town. They were inspired by Tennyson’s poem “The Lotus Eaters” to call the hilltop house and its spacious grounds Lotus Land. Van insisted on paying all the rent for a house that was bigger than the Drukens’.
 
“You could fit this house into one room at Vanderland,” Van said.
 
“Is the idea of building this Vanderland all that keeps you going?”
 
“Isn’t that enough? The greatest house in the world?”
 
They each had a storey of the three-storey house, Van the upper one, Landish the middle. Mr. Trull lived in three rooms on the ground floor. He had his own entrance and there was no connecting passage between his rooms and theirs. “He keeps an eye and ear out in case I leave, I suppose,” Van said. “I doubt he ever really sleeps.”
 
Van chose as his bedroom the one at the opposite end of the house from Landish’s so that, he said, he wouldn’t be kept awake all night by the footsteps of “a stomping insomniac who can’t compose a word without roaring it out loud.”
 
“And then I burn the words,” Landish said. “So far, I haven’t left a single word of my book unburned.”
 
“You really are writing a book — I thought you were kidding and just reading your assignments out loud. What’s the book about?”
 
“I can tell you it will be a novel. I know little more than that about it myself.”
 
“You speak so often of Newfoundland, I’m maddened by your infatuation with the place. It’s just your childhood you miss, not Newfoundland,” he’d say. “Your childhood when everyone was nice to you, when you had no enemies and there was no one who was out to bring you down.”
 
“Perhaps,” he’d say, and then start in about Newfoundland again. He told Van that he remembered the smell of ripening crabapples borne up by the wind from the street below his house in late September.
 

close this panel
Baltimore's Mansion

Baltimore's Mansion

A Memoir
edition:Paperback
tagged :
More Info
Excerpt

I am foreborn of spud runts who fled the famines of Ireland in the 1830s, not a man or woman among them more than five foot two, leaving behind a life of beggarment and setting sail for what since Malory were called the Happy Isles to take up unadvertised positions as servants in the underclass of Newfoundland.

Having worked off their indenture, they who had been sea-fearing farmers became seafaring fishermen and learned some truck-augmenting trade or craft that they practised during the part of the year or day when they could not fish.

Their names.

In reverse order: Johnston. Johnson. Jonson. Jenson...MacKeown. "Mac" in Gaelic meaning "son" and Keown "John."

My father grew up in a house that was blessed with water from an iceberg. A picture of that iceberg hung on the walls in the front rooms of the many houses I grew up in. It was a blown-up photograph that yellowed gradually with age until we could barely make it out. My grandmother, Nan Johnston, said the proper name for the iceberg was Our Lady of the Fjords, but we called it the Virgin Berg.

In 1905, on June 24, the feast day of St. John the Baptist and the day in 1497 of John Cabot's landfall at Cape Bonavista and "discovery" of Newfoundland, an iceberg hundreds of feet high and bearing an undeniable likeness to the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared off St. John's harbour. As word of the apparition spread, thousands of people flocked to Signal Hill to get a glimpse of it. An ever-growing flotilla of fishing boats escorted it along the southern shore as it passed Petty Harbour, Bay Bulls, Tors Cove, Ferryland, where my father's grandparents and his father, Charlie, who was twelve, saw it from a rise of land known as the Gaze.

At first the islands blocked their view and all they could see was the profile of the Virgin. But when it cleared Bois Island, they saw the iceberg whole. It resembled Mary in everything but colour. Mary's colours were blue and white, but the Virgin Berg was uniformly white, a startling white in the sunlight against the blue-green backdrop of the sea. Mary's cowl and shawl and robes were all one colour, the same colour as her face and hands, each feature distinguishable by shape alone. Charlie imagined that, under the water, was the marble pedestal, with its network of veins and cracks. Mary rode without one on the water and there did not extend outwards from her base the usual lighter shade of sea-green sunken ice.

The ice was enfolded like layers of garment that bunched about her feet. Long drapings of ice hung from her arms, which were crossed below her neck, and her head was tilted down as in statues to meet in love and modesty the gaze of supplicants below.

Charlie's mother fell to her knees, and then his father fell to his. Though he wanted to run up the hill to get a better look at the Virgin as some friends of his were doing, his parents made him kneel beside them. His mother reached up and, putting her hand on his shoulder, pulled him down. A convoy of full-masted schooners trailed out behind the iceberg like the tail of some massive kite. It was surrounded at the base by smaller vessels, fishing boats, traps, skiffs, punts. His mother said the Hail Mary over and over and blessed herself repeatedly, while his father stared as though witnessing some end-of-the-world-heralding event, some sight foretold by prophets in the last book of the Bible. Charlie was terrified by the look on his father's face and had to fight back the urge to cry. Everywhere, at staggered heights on the Gaze, people knelt, some side-on to keep their balance, others to avert their eyes, as if to look for too long on such a sight would be a sacrilege.

A man none of them knew climbed the hill frantically, lugging his camera, which he assembled with shaking hands, trying to balance the tripod, propping up one leg of it with stones. He crouched under his blanket and held above his head a periscope-like box which, with a flash and a puff of foul-smelling yellow smoke, exploded, the mechanism confounded by the Virgin, Charlie thought, until days later when he saw the picture in the Daily News. Even then it seemed to him that the Virgin must have lent the man's machine the power to re-create in black and white her image on the paper, the same way she had willed the elements to fashion her image out of ice.

He had seen photographs before but had never watched as one was taken. She was the first object he had seen both in real life and in photographs. For the rest of his life, whenever he saw a photograph, he thought of her and the man he had been so surprised to see emerge unharmed from beneath his blanket.

How relieved he was when the Virgin Berg and her attending fleet sailed out of sight and his parents and the other grownups stood up and blessed themselves. Soon the miracle became mere talk, less and less miraculous the more they tried to describe what they had seen, as if, now that it was out of sight, they doubted that its shape had been quite as perfect as it seemed when it was looming there in front of them.

They heard later of things they could not see from shore, of the water that ran in rivers from the Virgin, from her head and from her shoulders, and that spouted from wound-like punctures in her body, cascading down upon the boats below, onto the fishermen and into the barrels and buckets they manoeuvred into place as best they could. Some fishermen stood, eyes closed and mouths wide open, beneath the little waterfalls, gulping and gagging on the ice-cold water, their hats removed, their hair and clothing drenched, hands uplifted.

close this panel
Human Amusements
Excerpt

I have a complete collection of the early “Rumpus Room” episodes and, watching them, it’s hard to believe that it’s me sometimes, for I’m completely contained by that costume and I never speak. Only because I know that, before 1972, no one else ever played the part am I able to convince myself that it must be me, inside the set, inside the suit, staring out at the future from television land. Television. The Greek word tele means “far off,” and is said to be closely akin to another Greek word, palai, meaning “long ago.” This always seems appropriate when I think of how old I was when I first appeared on the show. For me the early days of television are the early days of everything. Television. Hindsight. Memory. Long ago and far away. When I started playing Bee Good/Bee Bad, I wondered where they had been until now. I was seven and I had a notion that long before tv had even been invented, the world of “Rumpus Room,” with all its inhabitants, had been there, inaccessible, waiting for someone to tap into it. Waiting for Philo Farnsworth, the alter ego of my adolescence, though I didn’t know that then.

What I remember best are not the single scenes, the big, discrete events that happened years apart, but things that happened all the time, the “bits” we kept returning to as though they were all part of some large routine that we were trying to perfect, trying to get down pat before we went our separate ways.

My parents, in that other life, were teachers. My mother taught elementary school, my father high school, but neither one of them could find a regular job so they had to settle for being substitute teachers. Mondays and Fridays, the days that teachers were most likely to call in sick, were their best days. My mother was called more often than my father, the burn-out rate among elementary school teachers being greater than that among high school teachers. My mother was always worried about “The List”; that is, the department of education’s list of substitute teachers. How were names chosen from the List, was there some sort of rating or ranking system for teachers, were names ever dropped from the List? If a few days went by without one or both of them being called, she would start to worry. She wondered if my father’s having a beard might make any difference to how often he was called. Of course it did, my father said, claiming that, opposite his name on the List, the word “beard” appeared in brackets.

We lived on St. Clair Avenue, renting out our basement apartment. We had a succession of cellar dwellers, as my father called them, most of whom stayed only a few months before moving on, often skipping out on their last month’s rent, for people who could do no better than our basement tended not to have much money. Cellar dwellers. That, I knew, was what, in baseball, they called the last-place team. The losers, though in the case of the people who lived downstairs, the loners would have been more like it, for it seemed they were always alone. That, to these people, my father was the landlord, that they were afraid of him, was something I could hardly credit. When the rent was due, they went out of their way to avoid him, often not coming home until late at night, sneaking in to their own apartment as quietly as possible, sneaking out again early in the morning.

There was a man named Doyle, on each of whose hairy forearms an anchor was tattooed, a man about forty-five who would walk around the back yard, smoking cigarettes and drinking from a bottle of beer that, between swallows, he left standing on the picnic table. I would sit out there with him while he paced the yard. He had been the driver of some sort of delivery truck, a bread truck I think it was. He often wore what might have been his uniform, a light-blue shirt, pants slightly darker blue, and still carried in his back pocket, attached to his belt by a chain, one of those conspicuous, ever-bulging wallets, though there could not have been much money in it. He was from out west, had broken up with his wife, who was from Toronto, and was forever announcing his intention to go, at some unspecified time, by some unspecified means, back home.

After Doyle, there was Mr. Colicos, who told us that he had once owned a coin shop. He had a car which he could not afford to operate, leaving it parked across the road from where we lived and going out from time to time, mostly in the afternoon, to sit behind the wheel, smoke cigarettes, watch the goings on, now and then rolling down the window to talk to someone or to shake his fist at a car that he thought was going by too fast.

One woman named Ruth, who had convinced my father she was a secretary, turned out to be a prostitute who, though not herself Portuguese, had, for some reason, an exclusively Portuguese clientele. Ruth’s stay lasted three days, or nights rather. It took a while before my father realized what was going on. We woke, the first night, to an almost surreal combination of sounds: bedsprings squeaking with a mechanical, machine-like rhythm; the song “The Black Velvet Band” being played over and over at what seemed like full volume; a woman’s voice droning “Oh Mario, Oh Mario,” as matter-of-factly as if she were testing a microphone to see if it worked; and, finally, what might have been either a fistfight or some sort of group dance involving an indeterminate number of non-English-speaking men.

That there was no need for them to sneak around this way, that my father would never have hounded them for the rent, was something that most of them never realized. In fact, when they failed to pay it, he was more embarrassed than anything else, often making as much effort to avoid the tenant as the tenant made to avoid him, even though, as my mother reminded him, we needed the rent to meet our payments on the house. His softheartedness, she’d say, would put us in the poorhouse. “You shouldn’t let people take advantage of you,” she’d tell him, to which my father would reply that, if she wanted to collect the rent, she was welcome to do so. At this my mother would retreat.

Cellar dwellers. I thought for a while that every house on St. Clair had one, that it was simply the way of the world. My mother could never get used to them, was never quite able to ignore them as my father advised her to do. She often complained to my father that they were making too much noise. The gall of some people, he’d say, walking around, running water, washing dishes; why, before you knew it, they’d be talking on the telephone. To my mother, that we were unable to meet our mortgage without renting out part of the house was a shameful thing. The cellar dwellers were a constant reminder to her of what she called her disadvantaged childhood and the fate that she seemed to think we were barely keeping one step ahead of, the shame of ending up in someone’s basement. “We could just as easily be them,” she’d say, though this thought, rather than making her feel more sympathetic towards them, seemed to make her more resentful of their presence, as if she believed that, somehow, they might drag us down with them.

close this panel
The Colony Of Unrequited Dreams
Excerpt

Besides what little clothing I had, I didn't bring much with me except my oilcloth map of Newfoundland, a fishermen's union pullover with its codfish-emblazoned badge, which I planned to wear while working at the Call, and my father's History of Newfoundland.

My parents and brothers and sisters went with me to the railway station to say goodbye, and though they made quite a fuss, especially my mother and the girls (my father and the boys manfully shook hands with me and clapped me on the back), they were upstaged by the entire Jewish community of St. John's, about whom I had written a laudatory feature in the Telegram two months before and who were surreally on hand to see me off, waving their black hats and weeping as if one of their number was leaving them for good.

Because of them and because of my oversized nose, many of my fellow passengers took me to be Jewish, a misconception I did nothing to discourage, since it made them less likely to sit with me, not because they had anything against the Jews, but simply because they doubted they could sustain a conversation for long with so exotic an individual. Normally, there is nothing I would rather do than talk, and I knew if I got started I might well talk all the way from St. John's to Port aux Basques, oblivious to the landscape we were passing through. I would, many times in the future, spend cross-country train trips in just that manner, staying awake twenty-eight hours at a stretch, hardly noticing when one exhausted listener made way for the next, but on this trip I wanted to keep to myself and that, for the most part, is what I did.

The building of the railway had been one of the few great ventures in Newfoundland not connected with the fishery. Its primary purpose was not to link the scattered settlements around the coast, but to convey passengers and freight back and forth between the eastern and western seaports, St. John's and Port aux Basques, to give Newfoundlanders access to both the ships that crossed the ocean to England and those that crossed the gulf to the mainland. Its route was not determined by the sea, nor was the sea visible at more than a few points along the way.

We started out from St. John's just after sunrise. In two hours, we had crossed the Bog of Avalon, a sixty-mile stretch of barrens and rock scraped bare and strewn with boulders since the ice age. This gave way to a lonely, undifferentiated tract of bog and rolling hills devoid of trees because of forest fires that had burned away even the topsoil so that nothing would ever grow there again that was more than three feet high. It was September, but not so far into the month that the browning of the barrens had begun. An overcast day with a west wind that would keep the fog at bay. There was beauty everywhere, but it was the bleak beauty of sparsity, scarcity and stuntedness, with nothing left but what a thousand years ago had been the forest floor, a landscape clear-cut by nature that never would recover on its own. It was a beauty so elusive, so tantalizingly suggestive of something you could not quite put into words that it could drive you mad and, however much you loved it, make you want to get away from it and recall it from some city and content yourself with knowing it was there.

No one, not even aboriginals, had ever lived on this part of the island. It was impossible to speak of its history except in geological terms. On one treeless, wind-levelled stretch of barrens, there were crater-like sink-holes of mud where the surface had collapsed. I saw an eastward-leaning stand of junipers, all bent at the same angle to the earth as though half-levelled by a single gust of wind.

Crossing the narrow isthmus of Avalon, I could for a time see ocean from both sides of the train. Fifty years later, after the train had ceased to run, travellers on the highway would be able to see from there the ruins of my refinery at Come by Chance; after it was mothballed, small amounts of crude oil would still be sent there for refining, so that, at night, you would be able to see the flame from the highest of the stacks from forty miles away.

Next came the Bog of Bonavista, and I began to think that Newfoundland would be nothing but a succession of bogs with clumps of storm-stunted spruce trees in between. We stopped at Gambo, the town where I was born and that I was really seeing for the first time, having been too young when I left to remember anything about it. Gambo was the one place in the 253 miles between Port Blandford on the east coast and Humbermouth on the west coast where the railway touched the shoreline, but it was not a fishing village, for the cod did not come that far up Bonavista Bay. It was a logging town and a coastal supply depot, boats sailing up Bonavista Bay to unload their cargo there, where it was then reloaded onto the train and transported inland to towns whose only link with the rest of the island was one of the world's most primitive railways, a narrow-gauge track with spindle-thin rails on which the cars swayed about like sleds on ice.

Gambo was not much to look at, just a cluster of crude, garishly painted one-storey houses, log cabins and unbelievably primitive tar-paper shacks whose front yards were linered with a lifetime of debris: bottles, wooden crates, discarded clothing, broken barrels. I self-ashamedly thanked God we had forsaken the place and our lumber business there in favour of St. John's. I saw the house where I was born -- my mother had described its location and appearance to me. I will admit that it was one of the better houses within view, a white, blue-trimmed two-storeyed salt-and-pepper house with a gabled attic window that I could all too easily imagine myself looking out to sea from on a Sunday afternoon. I had fancied, before the trip began, that when we stopped in Gambo, I would proudly announce it to my fellow passengers as the place where I was born. But having seen it, I kept this information to myself and turned sideways in my seat, staring crimson-faced out the window and trying not to imagine the Smallwood that might have been, standing out there, staring in wonderment and longing at the train.

I saw from the windows of the train old men who I fancied had never travelled more than fifty miles from home, sitting side on to their windows, looking out. At the same time as I found the very sight of them oppressive and lived in horror of ending up that way myself -- which I was for some reason well able to imagine, me in there looking out, ambitionless, untravelled and uneducated, watching the water break on the rocks in a pattern of foam I had so often seen it was imprinted on my brain -- I envied them their apparent self-contentment and dilemma-less existence. For though their afflictions may have been many, irresolution and ambivalence were not among them. I did not begin to feel better until mid-afternoon, when we crossed the Exploits River into central Newfoundland and the sudden change in the landscape revived my spirits. We travelled through a leafless forest of blazing-white birch trees, tall, schooner-mast-sized trees that went on and on until I could stand to look at them no longer.

I took out my map to see if I could fix exactly where we were. It struck me more forcefully than it ever had before that virtually the whole population lived on the coast, as if ready to abandon ship at a moment's notice. The shore was nothing but a place to fish from, a place to moor a boat and sleep between days spent on the sea. Of the land, the great tract of possibility that lay behind them, beyond their own backyards, over the farthest hill that they could see from the windows of their houses, most Newfoundlanders knew next to nothing. Just as I, who knew nothing about it, feared the sea, though I believed my ignorance and fear to be more justified than theirs. I knew of grown men who hurried home from trouting or berry-picking in a panic as the sun was going down, for fear of being caught out after dark and led astray by fairies. My mother had often told me stories of people from Gambo who, fairy-led, were found weeks later at the end of a trail of clothing that in their trance, they had discarded. They had been led in a dance by fairies until they flopped down dead from sheer exhaustion, my mother believed, and no appeal to common sense or any amount of scorn could change her mind. Yet these same fairy-feeble men would go out on the sea at night in the worst weather to rescue a neighbour whose boat was going down. Here was all this land and they had not claimed an inch of it as theirs, preferring instead to daily risk their lives, hauling fish up from a sea that never would be theirs, and to kill seals walking on ice that could not, like land, be controlled or tamed.

I watched a group of loggers driving a large boom down the river, walking about with their pike-poles like the navigators of some massive raft. Even they preferred the water; they would rather ride the river than the train, though they acknowledged our whistle with a wave as we went by.

The aboriginals were gone. There was no one on the river now, besides the loggers, except guide-led sport fishermen from places like New York and Boston, and not even any of them past a certain point, just the river, which someone had once followed far enough to guess where it was headed and put that guess like gospel on a map. But no one knew where the river went. They knew where it began and where it flowed into the sea; what happened to it in between no one still alive could say.

We reached the town of Badger, where, in the one major departure from the route the highway would take years later, we kept on heading west through what, for the men who built the railway, must have been the most difficult stretch. There were so many hills the engineers had had no choice but to go straight through them. The train wound its way through cuts of rock so sheer and high you could not see the tops of them. Down the face of the rock ran little, spring-fed streams that sparkled in the sun, unseen except for the few minutes when the train was passing by.

There were rickety, gorge-spanning trestles, the gorges only thirty or forty feet wide but hundreds of feet deep. And there were ponds, lakes. When the train curved round some pond, I could see its whole length from my window. It began to rain, a sun-shower, and soon the stretch of rails ahead was gleaming, as was the rainwashed locomotive. I saw the conductor, the seamed, soot-blackened faces of the engineer and fireman and the smoke blown back mane-like above the cars. I saw other passengers in other cars unaware that I was watching them, and I felt as the people we passed along the tracks must have felt and saw myself as they must have, as impossibly remote from them as I was to the lives I had left behind and was headed towards, caught up in the dream of travel, the travel-trance that overtakes you when there are no familiar landmarks to remind you you are making progress, when it seems you have no destination and the landscape you are moving through goes on forever.

All along the line, every mile or so, were little shacks in which the section-men and their families lived what must have been strange and solitary lives. I saw the wives of section-men standing in their doorways watching as the train, the reason they lived where they did, fifty miles from the nearest town, moved past. I saw them standing with their children in their arms while their older children abandoned the tracks they played on to let the apparition of the train go by.

This is not an island, I told myself, but a landlocked country in the middle of an otherwise empty continent, a country hemmed in and cored by wilderness, and it is through this core that we are passing now, the unfoundland that will make us great someday.

It seemed strange to think that some of my fellow passengers were heading home, but some were; they had a different look about them, that half-resigned, half-expectant look of people soon to see familiar sights, familiar faces, the circumscribed geography of home. I did not want to think that anyone was heading home, or that the train was moving for any purpose but to take me, and only me, where I was going.

Sometime in the afternoon, I dozed off and did not wake up until we were approaching the Gaff Topsails, a steep-sloped tract of wilderness, the highest point on the line and the place where delays were most likely in the winter when the tracks were blocked by snow. The train went slowly upgrade for a hundred suspenseful miles, the passengers urging it on, knowing that if we stalled, we might be stranded there for days. We laughed and rocked forward and backward in our seats as if to coax the locomotive one more inch until, when we felt it make the crest, a great cheer went up and it seemed we were leaving home in earnest now, though one-third of our journey still remained.

Though I had vowed not to, I fell asleep again and awoke at dusk to see what appeared to be some kind of snow-plain, flatter even than the barrens, with only the occasional train-borne and bleary-eyed observer to confirm that it was real. It was not until I saw that the stumps of trees, dead two hundred years and petrified by age, formed a kind of barricade around it that I realized it was a frozen lake that we were passing, Deer Lake, the first I had ever set eyes on that was so wide you could not see the other side.

When it was very late and the car was dark and almost empty and most of those still in it were asleep, I looked out the window at what, at that hour, I could see of Newfoundland: dark shapes of hills and trees; a glimpse, when the moon was out, of distant placid ponds; small, unaccountably located towns a hundred miles apart, nothing more than clumps of houses really, all with their porch lights on but otherwise unlit, occupied by people who, though it passed by every night, rarely saw or even heard the train.

From Stephenville Crossing, we followed the Long Range Mountains southwest to Corner Brook, going downstream along the black, cliff-channelled Humber River. Sometime early in the morning, I fell asleep again and did not awake until the sun was up. Someone said we were thirty miles from Port aux Basques. I had stayed in the smoking car all night and not even made it to my complimentary berth, though in my Telegram article, I extolled its comfort and convenience as if I had not budged from it from St. John's to Port aux Basques.

We were to cross the gulf by night and reach Cape Breton early in the morning.

I had intended to stand at the railing of the ship until I could no longer see the island. It seemed like the appropriately romantic thing to do.

I wished Fielding had come with me, though I knew she would have made some deflating remark that would have dispelled my mood.

I was pleased to discover, after about fifteen minutes, that all the other passengers had fled the cold and gone inside. I pulled up the hood of my raincoat and imagined what I must look like from in there, a lone hooded figure at the railing. But though I stood staring at it for what seemed like hours, the island got no smaller.

After a while, all but blue with cold, I went inside. And each time I went back out to see how much progress we had made, we seemed to have made none at all. The dark shape of the island was always there, as big as ever, as if we were towing it behind us.

I settled for standing at the window, looking out. When I saw the lights along the southwest coast, I thought of the fishermen's broadcast that I used to listen to on the radio when I lived at home. It always concluded with an island-wide temperature round-up.

Every evening, there was the same cold-shiver-inducing litany of place-names: Burgeo, Fortune, Funk Island, Hermitage.

I imagined myself looking out to sea at night from the window of a house in Hermitage. Hermitage. I wondered what lonely fog-bound soul had named it. It occurred to me that as Hermitage seemed to me now, so might Newfoundland seem from New York six months from now, an inconceivably backward and isolated place, my attraction to which I could neither account for nor resist. The whole island was a hermitage.

To leave or not to leave, and having left, to stay away or to go back home. I knew of Newfoundlanders who had gone to their graves without having settled the question, some who never left but were forever planning to and some who went away for good but were forever on the verge of going home. My father had left and come back, physically at least.

In the lounges, people sat listening to the radio until, about twenty miles out, the sound began to fade. There were groans of protest, but people kept listening as long as they could hear the faintest hint of sound through the static. Finally, when the signal vanished altogether, there was a change in mood among the passengers, as if we were truly under way, as if our severance from land was now complete. The radio was left on, though, eerily blaring static as though it were some sort of sea sound.

close this panel
The Custodian of Paradise
Excerpt

Chapter One

A clause in my mother’s will tersely stipulated: “I leave to Sheilagh Fielding, the only child of my first marriage, the sum of three thousand dollars.” It was because of her money that I was able to come to the island of Loreburn. I had gone for days to a place called the Registry, which was overseen by a small, middle-aged man known as the Vital Statistician. V.S.

Each time I saw a zero in the population column in one of the census ledgers, I asked him how I might get more information about it. I told him I was doing research for a book, an explanation that he at first accepted. It turned out that there were islands listed as unoccupied that in fact were inhabited by some lighthouse keeper and his family. Why, in the opinion of the census takers, these people did not count, V.S. didn’t know. He said that perhaps, on these islands, the isolation was such that no lighthouse keeper could endure it long enough to be said to live there.

I fretted over the reliability of V.S.’s information. It would mean the end of my venture if I wound up by mistake on some island that was occupied. After I had paid to get there from St. John’s and back, there would be almost no money left. And word of my curious behaviour would get round and I might be prevented from trying again.

I told V.S. that by “deserted” I meant an island on which there had once been a settlement but whose population was now zero, not one that had never been settled. “I know the difference,” he said.
An island on which it was at least hypothetically possible to live. There had to be one more-or-less intact house and a beach where one could land or moor a boat.

What a nightmare it was trying to navigate that census. It seemed that people lurked like submerged rocks under all those zeros. How tired of the sight of V.S. I had become. And he of the sight of me. “I can’t be spending all my time on this obsession of yours,” he said at last.

Many times I went to V.S. thinking I had found my island, only to have him declare it “seasonally occupied” or tell me that its population was “uncertain.” Uncertain. I never bothered asking for an explanation. Each time, I tried to hide my disappointment. “I see, yes,” I’d say, nodding as if my book had just moved one increment closer to completion.

“There’s a war on, you know,” he said to me one day. Yes, I felt like saying, and what contribution to its outcome do you imagine you and your registry would be making if not for my intrusions on your time? Though unaccustomed to holding back, to needing anything from another person so badly that I could stand to keep my opinion of them to myself, I said nothing.

I decided that my island had to be along the south coast, where there would be the least ice in the winter and spring, where whomever I depended on for supplies could reach me all year long.
Late one summer afternoon I found it. Loreburn. Population: zero. The last resident had left in 1925. It was used as a summer fishing station until 1935. Abandoned since. No lighthouse. No “uncertainties,” it seemed, after I consulted with V.S.

I did not conceal my excitement from him. “It’s perfect,” I said.

“For what?” he said and looked at me with frank suspicion. I wondered if he had already spoken to someone about me. He knew my reputation. He might even think I was collaborating with the Germans. It seemed at once ridiculous and highly likely.

There were signs everywhere in the city, urging Newfoundlanders to be vigilant, even around people they had known for years. Your neighbours might be “pacifists” hostile to “the effort.” There was no telling what their “sympathies” might be.

How this little man would love to help catch a collaborator. A spy. He looked as though he hoped I was one. Researching remote islands. Deserted islands. That might be used for who knows what. Radio transmissions, perhaps. Claiming to be writing a book, yet never writing down what he told her. This woman who in her column criticized everything, mocked everything, rejected everything. This woman who admitted in her column to frequenting “establishments.”

“Perfect for what?” he said again, louder this time.

“For my book,” I said, surprised to hear my voice quavering. “I’ve decided it will just be about one island. I’ll go there, when the war is over, I mean. Just to see it with my own eyes. Not that I have any idea when it will end. The war, I mean.”

“You’ve been drinking,” he said.

On the doors of the city’s few establishments that admitted women were signs that read: LADIES UNACCOMPANIED BY GENTLEMEN WILL NOT BE ADMITTED. Recently, I had written in my column that I preferred establishments whose signs were on the inside of the door and read: LADIES UNACCOMPANIED BY GENTLEMENT WILL NOT BE ALLOWED TO LEAVE.

I thought of denying his accusation. But here I was in front of him, looking every bit the Sheilagh Fielding he had heard of. He had likely seen me tipping back my head to take a pull of water from my famous flask.

I had been drinking, up to some months ago. But every time I had come here, every time I had sought him out for help, I had not been drinking. Had not smelled of Scotch.

“You are about as likely,” I nevertheless said, “to win a medal for discovering that Sheilagh Fielding is a drinker as you are for discovering that Hitler has a moustache.”

“You’ll have to leave,” he said.

Suddenly my vision blurred with tears for my dead son. I felt myself swaying, tilting forward. I planted my cane at an angle to the floor to keep from falling. I looked at V.S. He seemed terrified of having to go and bring back help, bring back people who would see this giant of a woman passed out on the floor of his registry.

From the Hardcover edition.

close this panel
The Navigator of New York
Excerpt

Chapter One

In 1881, Aunt Daphne said, not long after my first birthday, my father told the family that he had signed on with the Hopedale Mission, which was run by Moravians to improve the lives of Eskimos in Labrador. His plan, for the next six months, was to travel the coast of Labrador as an outport doctor. He said that no matter what, he would always be an Anglican. But it was his becoming a fool, not a Moravian, that most concerned his family.

In what little time they had before he was due to leave, they, my mother and the Steads, including Edward, tried to talk him out of it. They could not counter his reasons for going, for he gave none. He would not counter the reasons they gave for why he should stay, instead meeting their every argument with silence. It would be disgraceful, Mother Stead told him; him off most of the time like the men who worked the boats, except that they at least sent home for the upkeep of their families what little money they didn’t spend on booze. This was not how a man born into a family of standing, and married into one, should conduct himself. Sometimes, on the invitation of Mother Stead, a minister would come by and join them in dressing down my father. He endured it all in silence for a while, then excused himself and went upstairs to his study. It was as though he was already gone, already remote from us.

Perhaps the idea to become an explorer occurred to him only after he became an outport doctor. Or he might have met explorers or heard about some while travelling in Labrador. I’m not sure.

At any rate, he had been with the Hopedale Mission just over a year, was at home after his second six-month stint, when he answered an ad he saw in an American newspaper. Applying for the position of ship’s doctor on his first polar expedition, he wrote: “I have for several years now been pursuing an occupation that required arduous travel to remote places and long stretches of time away from home.” Several years, not one. He said that for would-be expeditionaries, such embellishments were commonplace.

He signed on with his first expedition in 1882. A ship from Boston bound for what he simply called “the North” put in at St. John’s to take him on.

First a missionary, now an explorer. And him with a wife and a two-year-old son, and a brother whose lifetime partner he had pledged to be. My aunt’s husband, my uncle Edward.

Father Stead had been a doctor, and it was his wish, which they obliged, that his two sons “share a shingle” with him. My father, older by a year, deferred his acceptance at Edinburgh so that he and Uncle Edward could enrol together. The brothers Stead came back the Doctors Stead in 1876. In St. John’s, Anglicans went to Anglican doctors, whose numbers swelled to nine after the return home of Edward and my father. On the family shingle were listed one-third of the Anglican doctors in the city. It read, “Dr. A. Stead, Dr. F. Stead and Dr. E. Stead, General Practitioners and Surgeons,” as if Stead was not a name, but the initials of some credential they had all earned, some society of physicians to which all of them had been admitted.

Three years after their graduation from Edinburgh, Father Stead died, but the shingle was not altered. Until his death, the two brothers had shared a waiting room, but afterwards my father moved into his father’s surgery, across the hall. From the door that had borne both brothers’ names, my father’s was removed. It was necessary to make only one small change to the green-frosted window of grandfather’s door: the intial A was removed and the initial F put in its place. F for Francis.

Even without Father Stead, the family practice thrived. When asked who their doctor was, people said “the Steads,” as if my father and Edward did everything in tandem: examinations, diagnoses, treatments. When they arrived at reception, new patients were not asked which of the brothers they wished to see -- nor, in most cases, did they arrive with their minds made up. Patients were assigned on an alternating basis. To swear by one of the brothers Stead was to swear by the other.

But with the departure of my grandfather, the Steads were no longer the Steads, and for a while the practice faltered. And no wonder, Edward said, what with one of them having gone off, apparently preferring first the company of Eskimos and Moravians to that of his own kind, and now the profession of nursemaid to a boatload of social misfits to that of doctor. If one of them would do that, what might the other do?

The family itself dropped a notch in the estimation of its peers. It was as if some latent flaw in the Stead character had shown itself at last. My father’s patients did not go across the hall to Edward. They went to other doctors. Some of Edward’s patients did likewise. He had no choice but to accept new ones from a lower social circle.

My father, in letters home, insisted that he would take up his practice again one day. He promised Edward he would pay him the rent that his premises would have fetched from another doctor, but he was unable to make good on the promise, having forsaken all income.

Rather than find another partner, rather than take down the family shingle and replace it with one that bore a stranger’s name, Edward left my father’s office, and everything in it, exactly as it was.

That door. The door of the doctor who was never in but which still bore his name. It must have seemed to his patients that Edward was caught up in some unreasonably protracted period of mourning for his absent brother whose effects he could not bear to rearrange, let alone part with. Every day that door, his brother’s name, the frosted dark green glass bearing all the letters his did except for one. He could not come or go and not be prompted by that door to think of Francis.

The expedition “to the North” he said, immeasurably improved the map of the world, adding to it three small, unpopulated islands.

Soon, my father’s life was measured out in expeditions. When he came back from one, it was weeks before he no longer had to ask what month or what day of the week it was. He would go to his office, turn upside down the stack of newspapers left there for him by Edward and read about what had happened in the world while he was absent from it. He searched out what had been written about the expeditions he had served on, the records they had set. As my father had yet to command an expedition, none of these records was attributed to him. Rarely, these records were some “first” or “farthest.” But most of them were records of endurance, feats made necessary by catastrophes, blunders, mishaps. Declaring a record was usually a way of putting the best face on failure. “First to winter north of latitude . . .” was a euphemism for “Polar party stranded for months after ship trapped in ice off Greenland.”

From the Hardcover edition.

close this panel
Show editions
close this panel

User Activity

more >
X
Contacting facebook
Please wait...