By  Michael Crummey

(Liveright, $24.95, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

Michael Crummey, an acclaimed Canadian writer who lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland, is both a poet and a novelist. His third novel, Galore, won the Commonwealth Prize for Canada and his earlier novels also won or were listed for several literary awards. Crummey often draws inspiration from the history and wild landscapes of Newfoundland and Labrador, where he also has lived, and his fictional towns evoke the harsh realities of life in  the Canadian Maritimes.

What is this book about?                

Sweetland is a tiny, nearly depopulated village on an island off Newfoundland. The mainland government has deemed it as being in inexorable decline, and offers its remaining citizens a very generous payment to abandon the place –providing everyone agrees to leave. But  at nearly 70 years old, lighthouse keeper Moses Sweetland, whose family founded the town, digs in his heels: Hell no, he won’t go. Neither will his niece’s son, who has autism (and whom the town has written off as its “village idiot.”) There are other quirky characters in Sweetland as well, and Moses tells us about them and town’s history. His eventual fate seems inevitable, but Crummey makes the very most of his story, reminding us what a powerful pull a place and the recollections it engenders can have on those who love it.

Why you’ll like it:

Crummey writes prose with a poet’s touch, and is a shrewd and sensitive creator of characters. This is a book in which plot is overshadowed by memories, personal oddities and the power of a strong-willed man to ride out his destiny as he sees fit. Not merely a historical novel, although there is plenty of history of this fictional but believable town, Sweetland nods to the Internet and TV dramas in the current era, but slams us with nostalgia and regret for the passing of a more innocent and challenging way of life.

What others are saying:

An Amazon Best Book of the Month review for January 2015 says: There’s a quietness to Michael Crummey’s novel that adds to its power. Sweetland is about a man, Moses Sweetland, who lives on an island off of Newfoundland. The island itself is called Sweetland, named by Moses Sweetland’s ancestors, and it’s a dying place. In fact, the entire population has been offered a lump payment by the government to remove themselves from the island. There are only two holdouts to the deal: the village idiot and the sixty-nine year old Moses Sweetland. What’s most appealing about this subtle, entertaining, and quietly moving novel is the humanity of its characters and the genuine feel of Sweetland itself. Each character is real and truly imagined; it’s the kind of book and the kind of place where many readers will just want to linger. Communities like Sweetland, with their specific ways of talking and being, are growing less common. Crummey’s book is a testament to those places and the people who live there.

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “Sweetland is both a place—a small island off Newfoundland—and a person—Moses Sweetland—and both have seen better times. The provincial government is offering resettlement money to Sweetland residents, but only if everyone agrees to leave. Moses Sweetland is 69 years old and has been disfigured by an industrial accident. When the story opens, he is the only person—aside from the man considered the island idiot—who opposes the government’s proposition. He’s under plenty of pressure to accept, but the island named for his ancestors, where he takes his great-nephew rabbit hunting and hands down family legends, is the only place Moses can imagine living. Crummey, whose last book, Galore, won the Commonwealth Prize, does both man and place justice: Moses is a memorably strong-willed character, whose manner of thinking and speaking are dying out. The novel also conveys the way that a sense of place is the product of relationships—among the living, with the dead, and, in Moses’s case, arising from intimate connections to land and sea. At the end of the story, Moses remains alone on the island, his supplies dwindling, beset by injury, cold, and memories—the question isn’t what will happen, but how. Having nearly trapped himself in a narrative corner, Crummey writes himself out of it, concluding the book in a way that recalls Aristotle’s maxim from the Poetics: the best endings find a way to be both surprising and inevitable.

Macleans magazine says: “Impetuous and imperious, Moses Sweetland is an extraordinary, beautifully realized character, and the supporting cast—including Queenie Coffin, a chain-smoking romance-novel addict who hasn’t left her house in four decades; and the feral Priddle brothers, “Irish twins” born 10 months apart—are scarcely less so. But Sweetland, Crummey’s finest novel yet, reaches its mythic and mesmerizing heights only after the others depart, leaving Moses—a Newfoundland Robinson Crusoe who even encounters a Friday-like dog—alone on his eponymous island, bracing for a bitter winter both seasonal and personal.”

Says Kirkus in a starred review: “On the small fictional island of Sweetland, just south of Newfoundland, a former lighthouse keeper becomes the last man standing when he refuses to accept a government resettlement package—much to everyone’s exasperation. Never married and with hardly any living kin, Moses Sweetland has spent most of his 69 years on the island to which his ancestors gave their name. Since technology eliminated his lighthouse keeper job, he has done a little bit of everything, like burying bodies and pulling a baby calf from a neighbor’s mistreated cow. He’s a sarcastic cuss, but his attachments—especially to his niece’s autistic son, who is as adamant about staying on Sweetland as Moses—are strong. In resisting the government’s $100,000 cash offer, which needs to be accepted by all the occupants to go through, Moses exposes himself to a series of threats, some of them grisly. But with all the memories the island has for him, and all the secrets there still waiting to be uncovered, he plans on being there until he dies. Canadian author Crummey employs a very different style here than he did with his fanciful, widely admired 2011 novel, Galore. Like Moses, Sweetland moves in fits and starts, capturing the present in patient detail and flashing back to dwell on milestone moments in his life. Unlike most novels steeped in rural nostalgia, it gets a kick out of contemporary life: Moses plays Internet poker; his niece is hooked on Mad Men. But the elimination of an entire community, and what it represents, is deeply felt. Through its crusty protagonist, Crummey’s shrewd, absorbing novel tells us how rich a life can be, even when experienced in the narrowest of physical confines.”

When is it available?

This novel is on the shelf at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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