The Custodian of Paradise

Overview

A Book-of-the-Month Club "Best Novel of 2007."
In the waning days of World War II, Sheilagh Fielding makes her way to a deserted island off the coast of Newfoundland. But she soon comes to suspect another presence: that of a man known only as her Provider, who has shadowed her for twenty years.Against the backdrop of Newfoundland's history and landscape, Fielding is a compelling figure. Taller than most men and striking in spite of her crippled leg, she is both eloquent and ...

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Overview

A Book-of-the-Month Club "Best Novel of 2007."
In the waning days of World War II, Sheilagh Fielding makes her way to a deserted island off the coast of Newfoundland. But she soon comes to suspect another presence: that of a man known only as her Provider, who has shadowed her for twenty years.Against the backdrop of Newfoundland's history and landscape, Fielding is a compelling figure. Taller than most men and striking in spite of her crippled leg, she is both eloquent and subversively funny. Her newspaper columns exposing the foibles and hypocrisies of her native city, St. John's, have made many powerful enemies for her, chief among them the man who fathered her children—twins—when she was fourteen. Only her Provider, however, knows all of Fielding's secrets. Reading group guide included.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Sheilagh Fielding—a striking, unconventional, six-foot-three Newfoundland woman with a limp—returns from prolific Johnston's The Colony of Unrequited Dreamsfor this highly atmospheric sequel. Near the end of WWII, Fielding (as she is known), a notorious St. John's columnist, holes up on the nearby deserted island of Loreburn after her mother dies and leaves her a small inheritance. There, Fielding senses the presence of her mysterious "Provider," who has shadowed her all her life and whom she has never met face-to-face. As Fielding tells her story—abandoned by her mother at six; raised by a father who insinuates she's not his—Fielding's Provider draws closer to her solitary retreat. But Fielding has long kept another secret: she gave birth to twins at the age of 15, who were raised as her half-siblings by her mother in New York City. Johnston's descriptive prose can be exhilarating, from the windswept island to a dingy Manhattan, and he has a sure hand with historical nuggets. There's little tension over the 500-plus pages, and the denouement (her father's identity; her children's fate) is overblown. But Fielding is a fascinating character: she courts her own estrangement as much as she is tormented by it. (Apr.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Award-winning Canadian author Johnston's seventh novel, which builds on the story he began in The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, opens against the backdrop of World War II, when a gifted woman of great wit and inner strength seeks refuge on a deserted island off the coast of Newfoundland. An only child haunted since age six by her mother's abandonment, Sheilagh Fielding was raised in the city of St. John's by her physician father, a man still devastated by his wife's departure and tormented by the suspicion that Sheilagh is not his offspring. Further anguish occurs when, at age 16, Sheilagh becomes pregnant and is sent to stay with her estranged mother, now remarried and living in New York City. Eventually, Sheilagh returns to St. John's and lives an eccentric life that includes writing a satiric newspaper column and drinking heavily. When a mysterious man calling himself her "Provider" claims to know both her and her mother's secrets, Sheilagh slowly learns the truth. With humor and pathos, Johnston unravels the story in fascinating layers and a compelling tone, revealing how mistakes, betrayal, and revenge can plague people's entire lives. Recommended for all library fiction collections.
—Maureen Neville

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393331592
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/28/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 510
  • Sales rank: 1,000,803
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Wayne Johnston’s previous novel on Newfoundland, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, garnered extraordinary reviews and praise from Annie Proulx, Andrea Barrett, Howard Norman, and Annie Dillard. A native of Newfoundland, he now lives in Toronto.

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Read an 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.

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Foreword

1. Though she’s from a “quality” family, not “scruff,” Sheilagh lives in rundown places like the boarding house on New York’s Lower East Side, the shack on the Bonavista line, and the Cochrane Street Hotel Why do you think she does this? Talk as well about the class differences that rule St. John’s and how they affect Johnston’s main characters.

2. Why is Sheilagh so abrasive to others, even to the extent of hurting and pushing away those she loves? Does Sheilagh take pride in the persona she has created for herself, and in her local infamy? Or is it truly just a regrettable consequence of being herself?

3. Sheilagh’s Provider writes to her of making a game of devising synonyms for “God,” including “custodian of paradise.” He said to his delegate, “We are all three of us, you and I and Miss Fielding, custodians . . . withdrawn from the world to preserve, to keep inviolate, something that would otherwise be lost.” What are these characters preserving, and are they right or misguided in doing so? In what ways is the Provider playing God?

4. How does the backdrop of the Second World War permeate The Custodian of Paradise? Even at Loreburn, it’s often at the forefront of Sheilagh’s mind. How is Newfoundland affected by the war (e.g. considering its strategic location, and the great losses of its young men)? Is there a comparison to be made between going off to war and going out on the seal hunts?

5. Throughout the novel are references to Sheilagh’s need to be indoors, to her late-night walks, to her need for “sanctuary.” Discuss theimportance of sanctuary and isolation in this novel, both physical and mental.

6. Why does the Provider keep his identity and his relationship with Sheilagh’s mother a secret, yet write such cryptic letters, for two decades?

7. From the missives the Provider sends to Sheilagh, to the Forgeries she publishes, to the scrap of paper reading only “Their names are David and Sarah,” correspondence serves as the backbone of communication in this novel. Discuss the ways in which letters and notes guide the main characters. How does writing relate to truth (or fiction) in the novel? To memory?

8. At the time this novel is set, Newfoundland has yet to join Confederation, and has a remoteness from the rest of Canada that is both geographical and psychological. Talk about how Newfoundland is portrayed, and how Fielding and Smallwood feel about their home.

9. Is there any significance to names such as the S.S. Newfoundland (the sealing boat Smallwood travels on) or the Newfoundland Hotel (where Smallwood and Fielding stay in New York)?

10. Johnston has said that one of the main themes explored in this story is “the attempt to overcome the temptation of vengeance.” How do Sheilagh, the Provider, and even Dr. Fielding fare in their efforts?

11. An entirely fictional character, Sheilagh Fielding made her first appearance in Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, his renowned novel based on real-life political figure Joe Smallwood. If you’ve read the earlier novel, discuss the differing views of and narrative roles of Smallwood and Fielding. How has this novel enriched your memory of Colony?

12. As Sheilagh leaves New York for the first time, she writes, “It is as if, when my children were born, my soul followed theirs into the world and now is lost. It seems there is nothing left of me but matter, mortal matter.” How is this attitude reflected in her life afterwards? Does anything change when she meets David?

13. In the final chapter, on her journey back to wartime St. John’s and to society, Sheilagh thinks, “I am returning to a war that I have never really left,” and even calls her Provider’s apartment in New York a “book-lined trench.” In what ways do Sheilagh and others view life as a battle to be fought, or as a war to be survived?

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Reading Group Guide

1. Though she’s from a “quality” family, not “scruff,” Sheilagh lives in rundown places like the boarding house on New York’s Lower East Side, the shack on the Bonavista line, and the Cochrane Street Hotel Why do you think she does this? Talk as well about the class differences that rule St. John’s and how they affect Johnston’s main characters.

2. Why is Sheilagh so abrasive to others, even to the extent of hurting and pushing away those she loves? Does Sheilagh take pride in the persona she has created for herself, and in her local infamy? Or is it truly just a regrettable consequence of being herself?

3. Sheilagh’s Provider writes to her of making a game of devising synonyms for “God,” including “custodian of paradise.” He said to his delegate, “We are all three of us, you and I and Miss Fielding, custodians . . . withdrawn from the world to preserve, to keep inviolate, something that would otherwise be lost.” What are these characters preserving, and are they right or misguided in doing so? In what ways is the Provider playing God?

4. How does the backdrop of the Second World War permeate The Custodian of Paradise? Even at Loreburn, it’s often at the forefront of Sheilagh’s mind. How is Newfoundland affected by the war (e.g. considering its strategic location, and the great losses of its young men)? Is there a comparison to be made between going off to war and going out on the seal hunts?

5. Throughout the novel are references to Sheilagh’s need to be indoors, to her late-night walks, to her need for “sanctuary.” Discuss theimportance of sanctuary and isolation in this novel, both physical and mental.

6. Why does the Provider keep his identity and his relationship with Sheilagh’s mother a secret, yet write such cryptic letters, for two decades?

7. From the missives the Provider sends to Sheilagh, to the Forgeries she publishes, to the scrap of paper reading only “Their names are David and Sarah,” correspondence serves as the backbone of communication in this novel. Discuss the ways in which letters and notes guide the main characters. How does writing relate to truth (or fiction) in the novel? To memory?

8. At the time this novel is set, Newfoundland has yet to join Confederation, and has a remoteness from the rest of Canada that is both geographical and psychological. Talk about how Newfoundland is portrayed, and how Fielding and Smallwood feel about their home.

9. Is there any significance to names such as the S.S. Newfoundland (the sealing boat Smallwood travels on) or the Newfoundland Hotel (where Smallwood and Fielding stay in New York)?

10. Johnston has said that one of the main themes explored in this story is “the attempt to overcome the temptation of vengeance.” How do Sheilagh, the Provider, and even Dr. Fielding fare in their efforts?

11. An entirely fictional character, Sheilagh Fielding made her first appearance in Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, his renowned novel based on real-life political figure Joe Smallwood. If you’ve read the earlier novel, discuss the differing views of and narrative roles of Smallwood and Fielding. How has this novel enriched your memory of Colony?

12. As Sheilagh leaves New York for the first time, she writes, “It is as if, when my children were born, my soul followed theirs into the world and now is lost. It seems there is nothing left of me but matter, mortal matter.” How is this attitude reflected in her life afterwards? Does anything change when she meets David?

13. In the final chapter, on her journey back to wartime St. John’s and to society, Sheilagh thinks, “I am returning to a war that I have never really left,” and even calls her Provider’s apartment in New York a “book-lined trench.” In what ways do Sheilagh and others view life as a battle to be fought, or as a war to be survived?

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