Michael Crummey on his latest novel, Sweetland


In 1954, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador began "resettling" outport communities. Over the next 20 years, 30,000 people were uprooted and 300 small communities abandoned. But resettlement isn't just part of Newfoundland's past. It's an issue affecting the lives of many today. The politics are different, but the sensing of losing a home and a history are the same.

This modern resettlement is the basis for Michael Crummey's fourth novel, Sweetland. An entire, tiny community is ready to leave - except for one man, 69-year-old Moses Sweetland. Crummey was recently on CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition to discuss his book. You can listen to his conversation with guest host Karin Wells in the audio player:

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Crummey says that the reason resettlement has become a hot button topic again is the fall-out from the 1992 cod moratorium. Most of these Newfoundland villages existed solely because of the cod fishery. Without it, it's difficult understand why these communities exist or imagine a future of any kind for them. Resettlement is also a financial win for the government, despite the offering of $275,000 per household who agrees to move. "They don't have to run ferries out there, they don't have to keep the power on, they don't have to provide healthcare or education."

However, the pressure this time around doesn't come from the government, it comes from within the community. The government won't begin discussions with a community unless at least 90 per cent of the community agrees to resettle - change that took place with the 2013 budget. "There's a sense among a lot of people in these communities that they don't really have a choice," Crummey said. "It's not practical to stay, but they don't know anything else."

Before 2013, every single community member had to agree to move. Crummey heard stories over and over again about this happening: a community would agree to resettle, but couldn't, because of a single holdout. This became the foundation on which Crummey built his novel. "What would that person would have to be like to resist the wishes of everybody he knows, everybody he loves to hang on to the only place that he feels like he belongs?" Crummey asked. "That's where I started."

With that question asked, Moses came to Crummey fully formed, a combination of his father, his father's best friend and a stereotypical, yet authentic, image of an old Newfoundland man who was "pretty crusty on the outside, who is self-reliant to a fault, but who is also, underneath the surface emotionally soft as butter."

Sweetland is about the prospect of resettlement and how it affects a community and the individuals who call it home. It's also about the contradiction resettlement posts: the prospect of a life full of both hardship and cultural tradition, versus a more comfortable life on the mainland but one with less history and community. But, as Crummey points out, the novel, and what Moses goes through, is about so much more.

"For me, the book is about mortality and what how we face mortality says about us, as people."