Governor General Nominated Baltimore’S Mansion: A Memoir|
by Wayne Johnston
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by Wayne D.
From The Story of Bobby O’Malley down to his recently published The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Wayne Johnston has established himself as one of Newfoundland’s most gifted writers. His readers will now be eager for a glimpse of the factual underpinnings to his splendid inventions. In his Governor General nominated Baltimore’s Mansion: A Memoir (Knopf Canada, 272 pages, $32.95 cloth, ISBN: 0676971466), Johnston provides his readers with something more and with something less than this.
Johnston is naturally the authority for his own thoughts and feelings; but he also grants us a series of privileged views, evocations, and highly compelling fictions, all having to do with matters that go far beyond that limit. Incidents in the lives of family members are rendered from the inside, and their implausibility, paradoxical as this may seem, must be weighed against their value in helping author and reader make sense of the past. In default of certain knowledge, Johnston gives us a speculative rendering that has the feel of a novel, even if its point of departure is what occurred in fact. The need to understand the meaning of lost things presses hard on the author, and is perhaps the source of his novels, no less than of the present memoir.
At its core are the connections between certain family members who are closely involved with the affairs of Newfoundland and with the imposed isolation and hardships of that province’s landscape. These both define his characters and, as definitions must, constrain them—at times to the point of oppression. Johnston comes from a family of avowed “anti-confederates” who bitterly opposed union with the rest of Canada. Their bitterness was so persistent that the author came eventually to seek some other explanation for it. As a boy, he had viewed his native Avalon Peninsula simply as the world cut off from the main part of the island by a perpetually mist-shrouded isthmus. But Johnston belongs first and always to the sovereign republic of the Johnstons, complete with its sustaining myths, difficult though these may be to decode.
This memoir concerns an incident, or alleged incident, that took place between the writer’s grandfather and father on the occasion of the latter’s departure to pursue his education. The elder Johnston dies during his son’s absence, and the mysterious occurence, whatever it was, becomes the source of an enduring, complex emotion in which remorse is mixed with something less easy to identify. When the novelist describes his own eventual leave-taking from his father, he notes, in an ideal combination of sympathy and detachment, that “there is a symmetry here that it would be pointless for us to resist.” Indeed there is, circumstances having yielded up the appropriate, decidedly literary conjunction.
This example is not the only such mating of circumstance and meaning. Johnston’s grandfather was a blacksmith, and his occupation is treated in some detail. The shattering of an anvil, followed by the urgent quest for its replacement, raises the question of links, forged as well as resisted, between Newfoundland and its past, between Newfoundland and the rest of Canada. Johnston’s father, finding himself on the losing side in the referendum, later comes to defend the island rail service with nearly as much fire as he had Newfoundland’s independence. The author recollects a strange, sometimes alarming, and allegorically suggestive valedictory train ride across the province that he and his father took, the elder seeming to revel in the train’s inconvenience—in comparison with the newly inaugurated bus service, which inspires nothing but scorn. This indifference to mere comfort is somehow bound up with other hardships that are interwoven with the book’s central relationships: between grandfather and father, and between father and son. In a curious twist, and in a development of the recurring theme of displacement in space and time, Johnston gives us a haunting scene involving those Newfoundlanders who had earlier been compelled to abandon their life on smaller islands off the larger island’s coast, and were subsequently resettled after precariously floating their houses over on rafts. These incidents must be read in the context of the enigmas that form an ever-present background to Baltimore’s Mansion.
The book is finely executed. I have resisted giving a mere summary on the grounds that this would, more than is usually the case, denature the experience of reading the memoir. Admirers of Johnston’s work will surely want to do so.
“No path leads back from here to there,” Johnston reflects as he prepares to leave off the quest to understand his father’s secret. Perhaps. But Johnston is an artist whose view of the landscape and figures of his past, while it resists closure, nevertheless compels the closest attention.