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Baltimore's Mansion: A Memoir

Baltimore's Mansion: A Memoir

4.3 6
by Wayne Johnston

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In this loving memoir Wayne Johnston returns to Newfoundland-the people, the place, the politics-and illuminates his family's story with all the power and drama he brought to his magnificent novel, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams.

Descendents of the Irish who settled in Ferryland, Lord Baltimore's Catholic colony in Newfoundland, the Johnstons "went from


In this loving memoir Wayne Johnston returns to Newfoundland-the people, the place, the politics-and illuminates his family's story with all the power and drama he brought to his magnificent novel, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams.

Descendents of the Irish who settled in Ferryland, Lord Baltimore's Catholic colony in Newfoundland, the Johnstons "went from being sea-fearing farmers to sea-faring fishermen." Each generation resolves to escape the hardships of life at sea, but their connection to this fantastically beautiful but harsh land is as eternal as the rugged shoreline, and the separations that result between generations may be as inevitable as the winters they endure. Unfulfilled dreams haunt this family history and make Baltimore's Mansion a thrilling and captivating book.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Returning to the Newfoundland trenchantly chronicled in his acclaimed recent novel The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Johnston has crafted a sensitive, occasionally elusive memoir centered on three generations of men in his family. As in the novel, Newfoundland's "thirty thousand square miles of bogs and barrens" prove an affecting backdrop. His grandfather eked out a living as a blacksmith--a dying profession in the tiny town of Ferryland--while his father, Arthur, trained as an agricultural technician but became a "fish-preoccupied, fish-infatuated man" who took a job as a codfish industry inspector for the Fisheries of Canada. Striking passages recount Arthur's routine days spent tasting cod in a laboratory, returning home unable to bear the sight or smell of fish, and his travels around the province shutting down revoltingly unkempt processing plants. Johnston remains preoccupied with the fierce debates over the former British colony's 1948 confederation with Canada, a stinging defeat for his father and others who yearned for an independent Newfoundland nation. That bitterly contested vote, which saddled the province with billions of dollars of debt and hastened the demise of its rich, insular culture, also gives rise to this memoir's central mystery: an enigmatic family secret that darkened the relationship between Johnston's father and grandfather. Apparently a dispute over loyalty to Newfoundland, this betrayal-tinged affair seems somewhat contrived as the book's emotional touchstone and remains a disconcerting false note in an otherwise skillfully composed reminiscence. (June) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Unfortunately, Johnston's memoir--covering Newfoundland's unforgiving terrain, awful weather, and the generations of his Newfoundland family who fought against union with Canada--follows hard upon The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, his fiction dealing with many of the same topics. A reader unfamiliar with that brilliant novel might find more entertainment in this mellow and sedately paced true story. Neither the close vote that united Newfoundland with Canada nor the endless variety of bad weather endured by the region's inhabitants is sufficiently interesting to keep this volume from being slow going, except to those who are present or expatriate Newfoundlanders. Johnston's vivid and often lovely writing, however, does entice. A word about the title: Lord Baltimore, one of the first New World colonists, arrived at his newly built mansion in the 1620s. After narrowly surviving one winter, he and other survivors sailed back to England, leaving his mansion to decay. A metaphor? Probably. Select this with care. It is beautiful, inoffensive, and intelligent but not very exciting. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/1/00.]--Judith Kicinski, Sarah Lawrence Coll. Lib., Bronxville, NY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Kirkus Reviews
A beguiling combination of family history and autobiography, this first nonfiction work from Ontario novelist Johnston (The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, 1999) forms a revealing appendage to his own fictional works. We are given the experiences of three generations of Johnstons in a carefully shaped narrative that blends together chronological history, the adult Johnston's backward looks at his own childhood, and fictionalized reconstructions of quietly climactic moments in the lives of Johnston's paternal grandfather Charlie and father Art. The former was a blacksmith and fisherman in "Ferryland," the original name of the colony founded in the 1620s by England's Lord Baltimore (the site of whose mansion, long since destroyed, is still sought by archaeologists and scholars). Art was a better educated, more opinionated sort who went away to college vowing to escape the hardships that had claimed Charlie, but ended up a "fish-preoccupied, fish-infatuated man" who would become a federal fisheries inspector. Their episodic stories are unified by the Johnstons' (most especially Art's) ongoing hatred of the "Confederation" (with mainland Canada, accomplished in 1947) and its avatar—the resourceful politician Joseph Smallwood—a theme echoed in such vivid sequences as young Wayne's train journey across the province (in protest against "the first trans-island paved road" and the advent of buses) and a wistful description of the author's leavetaking from home (for college, and the hope of becoming a writer). The book climaxes with Johnston's movingly imagined re-creation of the "final days," duringwhichCharlie and Art separately (and dourly) await the dawning of Confederation, and with it the loss of their country's independence and their awareness of their own powerlessness and mortality. Johnston is a master of understatement wringing honest nostalgic emotion from simple declarative sentences. Here he offers a rich display of the rhetorical skills and heartfelt cultural recall that make his novels so enchanting and rewarding.

From the Publisher
Praise for The Colony of Unrequited Dreams:

"The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is an indispensable masterpiece.  It reshapes and animates history with luminous verisimilitude. Every page of Wayne Johnston's stunning novel displays the highest regard for his reader's intelligence and for the art of writing itself...Mr. Johnston has genius in him, and I think haunting, unmitigated, uncanny vision and grace."
--Howard Norman

"This splendid, entertaining novel is both a version of David Copperfield transposed to twentieth-century Newfoundland and an evocation of vanished ways of life in a place caught in tumultuous political changes. Rich and complex, it offers Dickensian pleasures."
--Andrea Barrett

"A novel of cavernous complexity that nevertheless does not overwhelm the reader, who can repose in pure narrative."
--Luc Sante, New York Times Book Review

"As absorbing as fiction can be-and a marvelous introduction to the work of one of our continent's best writers."
--Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Wayne Johnston is a brilliant and accomplished writer, and his Newfoundland--boots and boats, rough politics and rough country, history and journalism--during the wild Smallwood years is vivid and sharp."
--Annie Proulx

"Grand and operatic...this brilliantly clever evocation of a slice of Canadian history establishes Johnston as a writer of vast abilities and appeal."
--Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"A mighty accomplishment:  Here's a novel that is as much a tale of two people as it is a history of the harsh, odd, and ultimately fascinating land from which they hail.  There is indeed more to Newfoundland than salt cod and tundra, and Johnston brings it all to life."
--Chris Bohjalian, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

"A long, impassioned, absorbing novel...bravura storytelling."
--Dennis Drabelle, Washington Post Book World

"A capacious, old-fashioned summer hammock of a book--the kind you fall into, enchanted, and hate to leave...I wouldn't have missed the trip for anything."
--Dan Cryer, Newsday

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
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Random House
File size:
2 MB

Read an 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 theGaze.
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.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Meet the Author

Wayne Johnston is the author of four novels, including The Colony of Unrequited Dreams and The Divine Ryans. He was born and raised in Newfoundland and now lives in Toronto.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Baltimore's Mansion 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If u dont know me dont bother coming in.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
No. Kiev.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The diffrence between the only other reviewer of this book and myself must be pretty wide. 'De gustibus non disputandum est.' I thought this was a wonderful book. If you liked 'Colony of Unrequited Dreams' (which I loved), you should like this book. While a non-fiction memoir, it reads like a novel with the same larger than life characters as 'Colony'. Why the referendum turned off the last reviewer, I don't know. The referendum (at least in the world of the author, and I assume, in Newfoundland history) is a defining moment. Maybe, it is useful to read 'Colony' first to appreciate this book. As much as I rooted for Joey Smallwood in 'Colony', this book hits you on the side of the head with a different viewpoint that evokes all the lore,songs, and exaggeration of Irish independence (A Czech by nationality, I was educated by Irish priests.) In addition, the relationship between fathers and sons described in this book rewards the reader with another level. I certainly will look forward to Wayne Johnston's future books. What's with Newfoundland books anyway? Annie Proulx's 'Shipping News' was one of my favorite books a couple of years ago.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Had trouble from start to finish, and when I thought it might get good Mr. Johnston started writing about the referendum that didn't really appeal to me.