For many years I’ve immediately re-read poetry books. Some collections pull me back for a deeper appreciation of their language, music and structures; others I find disappointing and frustrating, yet I remain curious enough to give them a second go. Immediate re-reading, however, rarely carries over into my experiences of novels or books of non-fiction (now and then I do read back through short-story collections right away). Wayne Johnston’s most recent book, Jennie’s Boy: A Newfoundland Childhood, is an exceptional case: a non-fiction book so full of humour, compassion and vivid storytelling that I turned back to page 1 not long after finishing page 307.
Johnston's subtitle rightly says “memoir” rather than “autobiography”: most of the book describes only half a year in the mid 1960s when Wayne was a seven-year-old mysteriously plagued by uncontrollable coughing, back aches, insomnia, night sweats, and the inability to hold down food, thus malnutrition. Sounds grim, does it? Yet Johnston recalls his older and younger brothers, his alcoholic, restless father and his stalwart, well-meaning mother—and the complex family interactions—with colourful clarity; and he recalls their lives less to lament or judge than to understand and honour. Despite severe economic hardship and recurrent tensions within the family, the Johnstons were a great gathering of talkers; dialogue is one of the memoir’s brightest threads. One of the most memorable people (should we say “people” rather than “characters?”) is the maternal grandmother, Lucy, a committed yet unconventional, imaginative, priest-mocking Catholic, and a significant source of comfort for her sickly grandson. “They better bury you sitting up,” she says to Wayne, “or you’ll be coughing in your coffin until Judgment Day.” “None of us forget,” says Lucy about the death of her own son at the age of eight, “but some of us act like we do." Jennie’s Boy faces the difficulties of a family’s fraught life, yet also celebrates the conversational zest and awkward love that held the Johnstons of Goulds, Newfoundland together. Please, makers of audio books, record Wayne Johnston reading his sprightly, moving memoir.
Brian Bartlett’s most recent books include his third volume of nature writing, Daystart Songflight: A Morning Journal, and the chapbooks Shakespearean Halifax and Safety Last. Recent poems of his have appeared in Canadian Literature, Haiku Canada, The Honest Ulsterman, Poetry in Motion, Queen’s Quarterly and The Walrus.