The book tells the story of 69-year-old Moses Sweetland who has lived most of his life on an island off the southwest coast of Newfoundland. When the government offers the community a package to re-locate to the mainland, Sweetland digs in his heels. Everyone else on the island eventually decide to take the package, and tensions are running high as they try to convince Sweetland to join them.
He found himself enjoying it almost, to be the one knot they couldn’t untangle. Holding on like grim death and halfways invigorated by the effort. Twisted, Ruthie used to say of him, and Sweetland couldn’t argue her assessment. Or change his way in the world.
I can’t talk about this book without mentioning Sweetland‘s cast of characters. The people in this story are vibrant, unique, and full of heart. Sweetland’s great nephew, Jesse, loves to join his uncle as he goes trapping and fishing, but there is something about the boy that is hard to figure out; Duke owns the barbershop, but has never cut anyone’s hair; Wince Pilgrim has been blind his entire life; Queenie who hasn’t left her house in forty years; the Reverand who left and came back again; and the Priddle boys who keep coming back to stir up trouble.
The dead in this story hold just as much weight as the living. Sweetland’s long-dead brother Hollis is Jesse’s best friend; Ruthie, Sweetland’s sister, who “thought the sun shone out of his arse” when she was a girl; Sara Loveless, whose cow her brother is trying to take care of for her; and Effie Priddle who died young during childbirth.
Then there is Sweetland himself. Cantankerous, elusive, stubborn, independent, big-hearted old fool. At the end of each chapter, there is an extra segment that takes us back to Sweetlands’ life when he was younger. By the end of the book, we have a good impression of his life, his mistakes, his regrets, and his connection to the land and the people who belong to it.
The whole place was going under, and almost everyone it mattered to was already in the ground.
Something I found both amusing and interesting were the many references made throughout the book about technology and the internet. The idea of the internet feels out of place on the island; a contrast to the wildness and remoteness. It is easy, while reading the book, to forget that it is 2012 instead of 1912.
The web was like the ocean, Sweetland thought, there was no telling what lived in the murkiest depths. He allowed it might be possible, if a body knew where and how to look, that everything he’d known in his life and since forgotten could be found drifting down there, in grainy two-minute clips.
An infinite library of information and none of it any practical use to them. A window they could peer through to watch the modern world unfold in myriad variations, while only the smallest, strangest fragments washed ashore on the island.
The second half of the book is man against the elements. Will Sweetland regret his decision to stay behind, or was it the only choice he could have made? One thing is for sure, as his mother used to say, “If you scald your arse, you got to learn to sit on your blisters”.
He looked up at the hills surrounding the cove, sunlight making them ring with meltwater. He’d always loved that sound, waited for it each spring. Hearing it made him certain of the place he came from. He’d always felt like it was more than enough to wake up here, to look out on these hills. As if he’d long ago been measured and made to the island’s exact specifications.
This is a story about the bonds we form with family, community, and land. Which has a stronger pull on us? Sweetland took a chance on the bonds he had with the land and the people already buried within it. What kind of toll might you pay living alone on an isolated island for months with your memories and grief to keep you company?
Michael Crummey’s storytelling and writing are moving and masterful. His descriptions of Newfoundland and it’s people feel beautiful and authentic. And, the ending to this tale is emotional and powerful. I would like to know what you think of it. Highly recommended.
*This book was given to me from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.