Friday, June 5, 2015

Sweetland, by Michael Crummey

The steel mill was a city unto itself. Massive coke ovens, storage tanks and elevators, engine rooms, stock houses the size of city churches, miles of train tracks and gas lines and elevated piping that criss-crossed the blackened acres. Cooling stations, smoke and creosote and slag, the molten glow of the pour-offs at the open hearths like some evangelical's vision of hell. Everything was in motion, cranes and railcars, conveyor belts shifting ore pellets to the blast furnaces, coal cars shuttling from the battery to the ovens, sheets of heated strip steel rolling through rotating cylinders. All of it seemed to be moving at cross purposes and the unremitting noise of the place was a physical thing, hammering against them. The air heated and condensed, packed with dust and steam and a nauseating chemical sweat. Men darting among the machinery like rats, their faces grimed with soot.

This is Michael Crummey's vivid description of the mill that his protagonist, Moses Sweetland, works in with his friend, Duke Fewer, when the two young men go to Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, to find work. In Crummey's novel, 'Sweetland,' Moses and his friend can barely eke out a subsistence existence where they live on the island by the same name, Sweetland, in Newfoundland. Every other inhabitant (90 in all) of the small town is in the same boat (no pun intended), as a result of the moratorium on cod fishing imposed by the Canadian government in 1992. The moratorium was forced by over fishing and the resulting collapse of the once-plentiful fish stock.
Crummey's writing has been described in glowing terms, but as "spare lyricism" (the St John's Telegram). I guess I don't know what spare means in this sense. I see his descriptions of place, as in the steel mill above, as rich, fulsome (in the best sense), and evocative. Crummey is an award-winning poet, and his prose employs a variety of poetic devices, such as the parataxis demonstrated in the steel mill paragraph. He's able to do this without getting caught at it. One simply stops reading and exclaims, 'What a wonderful description,' or 'How well put,' or just says nothing and simply sits back and imagines being there, under a threatening sky, "a scudding wind kicking a lop on the water high enough to spit over the gunwale...soaked with ocean spray...face rimed with salt."
Crummey's story is about the disappearance of a way of life and it reflects, as any good story does, reality for Newfoundland's tiny coastal communities of fishermen and their kin. It revolves around the resettlement program implemented by the government of Canada. Families were offered a considerable amount of money to resettle to designated "growth areas." The sticking point in Crummey's novel was that all families had to agree (in actuality, the stipulation was that 80 to 90 percent of families had to agree). The government made it clear that once resettlement was completed, services would be cut off. In 'Sweetland,' we find the one hold out, Moses Sweetland, stranded in Chance Cove after he agrees to leave, then disappears as the government ferry is loaded.
Why does Moses Sweetland stubbornly refuse to leave the hardscrabble existence that he and others in the community endure? Perhaps it's because of the experience he had working in the steel mill, an experience that scarred him for life, physically and emotionally. Perhaps it's because who is, who he sees himself as being, is so tightly wound up with the concept of place that leaving is simply inconceivable. He is as much rooted to the land as the gnarled and tangled stands of stunted spruce and balsam fir -- the tuckamore -- anchored to the rock, weathered into swept-back, sculptural shapes by harsh coastal growing conditions.

Sweetland will not leave the island, but the island will leave him. Crummey doesn't lecture about climate change. He simply tells his story, and in his story, dead, emaciated birds wash up on shore. "Dozens of bullbirds dead in the water, the corpses like tiny bouys off their moorings and drifting past the breakwater...hundreds more of them on the surface beyond the breakwater, floating dead. The birds so delicately calibrated they'd starved within hours of each other, the organs shutting down one at a time." Sweetland realizes that these birds, these fish, these places are, "relics of another time and on their way out."

At some primal level, Sweetland understands that he too, is a relic. That, "There was a new world being built around him." Listening to the Fisheries Broadcast, he heard about, "apocalyptic weather, rising sea levels, alterations in the seasons, in ocean temperatures. Fish migrating north in search of colder water and the dovekies lost in the landscape they were made for. The generations of instinct they'd relied on to survive here suddenly useless."

In the end, I was left sad by the story. Sad for the plight of the people. Sad for the suffering. Their diminishment. Sad to realize that for many, perhaps most, their resettlement will not bring happiness, but simply another sort of suffering by virtue of an alienation that an indoor toilet can't assuage. Sad for the loss of a way of life. But I realize, as well, that I feel as if I've come to know these people, and I will miss them.

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