Wayne Johnston reflects on the wisdom, wit and tough love of his mother and grandmother in Jennie's Boy
The Newfoundland author of Jennie's Boy spoke with Shelagh Rogers about his latest book
Wayne Johnston is a writer, born and raised in Goulds, N.L. His novels include The Divine Ryans, A World Elsewhere, The Custodian of Paradise, The Navigator of New York and The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. His 1999 memoir, Baltimore's Mansion, won the RBC Taylor Prize. The Colony of Unrequited Dreams was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and was a 2003 Canada Reads finalist, when it was championed by now prime minister Justin Trudeau.
Johnston's latest book is Jennie's Boy. It's a memoir that recounts a six-month period in his chaotic childhood, much of which was spent as a frail and sickly boy with a fiercely protective mother. While too sick to attend school, he spent his time with his funny and eccentric grandmother Lucy and picked up some important life lessons along the way.
Johnston spoke with Shelagh Rogers about revisiting that time in his life to write Jennie's Boy.
"I looked at all the years that I could remember and tried to pick out which one was most representative of what life was like, not just for me, but for my family of three brothers and my mom and dad — my mom, most people call Jennie. It was a representative year because it was when a lot of things came to the boil, a lot of these illnesses that I had were finally confronted. And so I decided that's the year I should write about.
It was kind of the funniest year in a lot of ways, a bit sad in some other ways.
It was kind of the funniest year in a lot of ways, a bit sad in some other ways. And even though the book is called Jennie's Boy, I kind of struggled with the notion of calling it Lucy's Boy. That was my grandmother. I was her pet. And that's why I talked about it."
"So I said that's the year to write about, and then I whittled it down to six months and a particular house — among the many houses that we lived in when we lived in this mythical place called the Goulds."
Early health challenges
"I have a picture of me as a baby and I was actually quite robust. This is one of the things Lucy would always tease me about. How did you get off to such a good start? And why did you backslide so much?
"In the picture my face is smeared with prune stains and cabbage stains from baby food and for about seven months, I couldn't get enough. I was just a robust, chubby kid.
"Then I started getting every illness there was to get in the book. I had breathing problems that were misdiagnosed a thousand times, but eventually turned out to be pleurisy, undersized lungs. I had a heart murmur that was almost certainly, from the point of view of doctors, going to be a problem when I got older. But thank god, didn't."
A loving grandmother
"I was a broody little kid, but I had this sort of antidote to broodiness and almost an antidote to everything. And that was my grandmother, Lucy, who is by far the most remarkable person I have ever met.
"She died when I was eight years old, but I remember her so well. I remember her and her kitchen and the chocolate Quik on top of the fridge. And it was the only thing I could keep down. The only thing that kept me alive was a glass of chocolate Quik. And even then she would stand over me and say, 'Don't drink that too fast because you'll bring it back up.'
That was my grandmother, Lucy, who is by far the most remarkable person I have ever met.
"It was always a joy to go see her. And I was literally sent to see her by my mom. My mom had too much to do. She had a job when it was not a thing for women to work.
"After she had her baby, she didn't take a maternity leave. She went straight back to work, hired what she called a 'maid.' I was sent to Lucy and that's how I grew up — under the wing of my grandmother. Who was, as I say, a remarkably eloquent and ironic person who used language in a way that was very, very unusual."
"My mom was a tiny, diminutive woman with an oversized spirit. She was tough in a non-mean way that you had to be in that circumstance to keep a family together. She could be very funny, she could be very self deprecating, but also very deflationary in terms of my dad.
My mom was a tiny, diminutive woman with an oversized spirit.
"She was tough in the way that people were tough back then. We often said to her, 'Mom, we're hungry.' And her standard response was, 'Well, when you're tired of being hungry, go out and be cold for a while.'"
The will to live
"I don't know if there's a cause and effect there between my grandmother's death and something inside of me changing and going toward life rather than running from it.
I don't know if there's a cause and effect there between my grandmother's death and something inside of me changing and going toward life rather than running from it.
"But it feels that way because that's when my recovery began. Not long after Lucy died, something in me inclined my spirit or whatever to live and not to perish.
"And that's how it turned out."