Baltimore’s Mansion, A Memoir
Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 1999
First published in Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Review by: Kerry Riley
Having just completed Wayne Johnston’s highly enjoyable account of his early family life in Newfoundland, Baltimore’s Mansion, I am left with one regret – that this book was not available before I read Johnston’s 1998 hit, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams the quasi-biography of Joey Smallwood, and the story of Newfoundland’s entry into the Canadian confederation. Even though Baltimore’s Mansion was written after Unrequited Dreams, it leads inevitably to it. While the earlier book made it clear that its doughty little anti-hero represented a figure of considerable fascination for Johnston, Baltimore’s Mansion leaves no question as to why a coming to terms with the myth that was Smallwood was a necessary and inevitable exercise for him.
Johnston grew up in the Avalon Peninsula, an area of Newfoundland which voted two to one against confederation. Attached to the main island by a narrow isthmus, it was indeed a world unto itself. To venture across the often foggy isthmus, was to venture out of paradise, and into the land of the loathsome baymen – confederate minions all, who, in the moment of truth (the 1948 referendum) betrayed the country of Newfoundland in the feeble hope of financial security. The title refers to a mansion, built in the early 1600’s for Lord Baltimore, the area’s English patron who managed to endure only one winter there (another grand scheme come to nothing) but left it its name – Avalon.
Long after the referendum had rendered them Canadian, residents of Avalon, Johnston family members included, continued to resent, ridicule and deny this status — insisting on referring to the rest of the country as Canada, as if it were still a separate nation. Rumours of conspiracy, bad voting, and secret information that would have saved the cause, abounded, carefully hoarded and preserved by the losing side. Some still left a room if “O Canada” was played. One Johnston family entertainment involved the recitation of the “catechisms,” a call and response routine, invented by Wayne’s father, and intended to satirize their new life as Canadians, and Joey Smallwood, the instigator of this awful fate. The catechisms included a description of Smallwood as “him who, toad-like, croaks and dwells among the undergrowth.”
The referendum, and by association Smallwood, were also at the mysterious centre of a family rift between Wayne’s father and grandfather — a deep psychic scar which dictated family behaviour and was deemed too serious to be discussed in front of the children – no doubt deepening its impact.
For a boy, growing up in this milieu, Smallwood must have loomed as a formidable dragon, if not the anti-Christ himself, and an irresistible subject for the adult writer.
In a certain light, the inhabitants of Avalon, with their grandiose sense of themselves and their lost nationhood and their inability to let go of a long-lost cause, seem pathetic, their aspirations ridiculous, yet one can’t help but be taken with the wit and “literariness” of their culture. There’s much to envy in their effortless humour, their skill with the language, and the ease with which it is used to skewer their enemies, or just take back a little of what life may have taken away. Smallwood is mischievously nicknamed “the Thwart,” Wayne’s father, who ruefully refers to his in-laws’ house as “the world’s most mournful dwelling place,” is known as the “fishionary” because of his work with a Department of Fisheries laboratory. Under the spell of the silver-tongued Johnstons et al, humble working-class people all, who can nevertheless spike their rapier denunciations of confederation with quotes from Parnell and Yeats, one can’t help but agree, a least momentarily, that Canada is, indeed, a sorry state of affairs.
In a publishing season distinguished by unrelenting nostalgia, the mention of memoir in the book’s title gave me pause. Of course, I had nothing to fear, for Johnston, in his inimitable way, sifts the history, mythology, and geography of the place through a young boy’s sensibilities, transcending the concept of memoir, and creating something quite universal from something very personal.
A beautifully written, funny and sad homage to a people and their place, to grand schemes and hopeless causes, a study of family loyalties, and an eye-opening glimpse into a piece of real Canadian history from an under-appreciated perspective – Baltimore’s Mansion is all these, and a darn good read to boot.