The Next Chapter

Mark Critch recommends 3 great books about Newfoundland

The Next Chapter columnist and comedian reviews Sweetland by Michael Crummey, The Wake by Linden MacIntyre and Death on the Ice by Cassie Brown.
Mark Critch is the star of CBC's This Hour Has 22 Minutes and the author of the memoir Son of a Critch. (Aaron McKenzie Fraser)

This interview originally aired on Oct. 17, 2020.

Mark Critch is a comedian, actor and writer from St. John's. He is best known for his work on CBC sketch comedy show This Hour Has 22 Minutes.

His book, Son of a Critch, is a comedic memoir detailing him getting into trouble as a child, his upbringing in 1980s Newfoundland and some of the satirical interviews he has done over the course of his career. Son of a Critch was shortlisted for 2019 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour.

Critch is an avid reader, with a particular love for books that reflect the history of his home province. He spoke with Shelagh Rogers about three books about Newfoundland.

Sweetland by Michael Crummey

Michael Crummey is the author of the novel Sweetland. (Holly Hogan/Doubleday Canada)

"Crummey is probably my favourite author from this region that is full of interesting creative people. Every one of his books is a fascinating read, and reveals something to me about this place we live in. 

"This book, Sweetland, is just like that. It touches on something that's a very controversial topic: resettlement. In the 1960s, Premier Joey Smallwood thought that they had to get people out of these small communities that were expensive to service and bring them into the larger centres.

"People ended up floating their houses across the bay into a bigger town. They left behind not just their homes, but their sense of self, their communities, their graveyards, their churches. It was really scarring. 

Every one of his books is a fascinating read, and reveals something to me about this place we live in.

"This book takes place in one of those communities, where for 12 generations the people have lived on a small island in Newfoundland. They've been offered a generous compensation package to leave it. 

"But one person, an older gentleman named Moses Sweetland, decides, 'No, I don't want to go.'  He's an old coot, very stuck in his ways. But that's motivated by this sense of community and who we were in the past.

"I find Newfoundland and Labrador is a lot like that now. We cling to our culture —then people tell us that oil and tech is the future. We're a place built on small communities, built on the fishery and that knowledge. And Moses Sweetland doesn't want to give that up."

The Wake by Linden MacIntyre

The Wake is a nonfiction book by Linden MacIntyre. (Joe Passaretti, HarperCollins Canada)

"Three themes keep popping up in Newfoundland and Labrador's history: corporate greed, a desperate government and a population willing to work hard to save their communities.

"Linden in this book brilliantly tells the story of the 1929 earthquake that struck off the coast of Newfoundland, causing a tsunami to batter the little town of St. Lawrence, a small fishing community. The tsunami hits Newfoundland and this massive 20 foot wave comes in and sweeps entire houses, with the families still in them, out to sea.

Three themes keep popping up in Newfoundland and Labrador's history: corporate greed, a desperate government and a population willing to work hard to save their communities.

"This town lost everything. They were stuck with a huge financial crisis; Newfoundland was struggling to put food on the table before the tsunami. That's enough for a book there, but MacIntyre is relentless in telling this story. The tsunami is simply an appetizer. The true horror in the book is when a man arrives in town with a plan to open a mine. 

"The villagers are living on the dole. They go all in and work for free until it's viable — until they start getting sick. The thing that's to save the community is like throwing a toxic life preserver to someone drowning at sea.

"This is a very personal story because his father worked in this mine and he himself did for a time."

Death on the Ice by Cassie Brown

Cassie Eileen Brown was a Newfoundland and Labrador journalist, author, publisher and editor. (Anchor Canada)

"I had to read this book in high school. You'd read a little bit about a man freezing to death on the ice and then go to lunch and you come back for the rest of his death. It's not the best way to learn or to read a book like this. But I've read it several times since. This is a story of two captains, Abram Kean, and his son, Wes Kean.

"Wes ordered his men off his ship, the SS Newfoundland, to kill some seals and go to the SS Stephano, his father's ship about 10 kilometres away. It took them hours to reach them. But the father gives them a cup of tea and tells them to go back to their own ship. So they had to trek hours back.

It's an incredible story of survival and, once again, corporate greed.

"By this time, the weather has changed. Exhausted from the sealing and caught in a blizzard, these men are wet and pushing through knee deep snow drifts. They're lost on these ice floes for a couple of days and they start to die. 

"It's an incredible story of survival and, once again, corporate greed. It killed a generation of men — a generation of leaders and thinkers and fathers that never got to be in this province. 

"I think that's one of the reasons we've often found ourselves in tough spots."

Mark Critch's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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