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2023 - Jennie's Boy by Wayne Johnston

 The Goulds of Wrath

 The Humour of Hard Times


A few weeks before the September 2023 Leacock Medal banquet, my son Jon died.

I mention this in a book review because what we find humorous depends as much upon our headspace as what lies on the page.  My then headspace sat within a stone fortress blocking all light and lighter thoughts.

I didn’t attend the banquet and might have blown off the Meet the Authors event the night before had I not also been meeting with my sister in Orillia that day.  She came down from North Bay to console me and be consoled.  Our hotel sat minutes away from the Leacock event’s golf course venue, and after weeks of huddling broken only by doctors, lawyers, bureaucrats, and cremators, I felt I should engage with others and other things.

Yet I almost went back to collapse in my hotel room after cutting my finger on the car door.  I drove around Orillia looking for the perfect store with the perfect band-aids and with this perfect reason to bail on the event.  But with the bleeding under control, I sighed, turned back, and arrived just on time; people whom I knew and whom I did not made me feel welcome, and my bloody-finger delay meant the formal program started immediately.

The medal was destined to ring Wayne Johnston’s neck for the memoir Jennie’s Boy.  But on this night, I was rooting for another. I thought this other short-listed book, Jameela Green Ruins Everything by Little Mosque lady Zarqa Nawaz, had an important message, reminds us in a unique way that we are all the same, and would add a needed dimension to the pale pantheon of Leacock Medalists.  Two finalists including the winner in the previous year were books, like Johnston’s about Newfoundland experience.  And the third finalist this year, Susan Juby’s Mindful of Murder is worth a read for many reasons.  But with its author having already won the Leacock award years before, I felt my 2023 reader rooting would be better directed to another.

On this night, the eve of the award banquet, commitment to my favourite cracked 
when I heard Johnston reading from his book.  All of the finalists and two student competition winners read excerpts from their works with animation and emotion.  All diverted with humour and human concerns. But Johnston’s words struck me as lyrical, elevated by his Newfoundland lilt to the level of soothing music. I smiled often reading his book, but as I listened to him in the ambiance of other book lovers and my time-period peers, I felt a special kind of comfort.

He is a better writer than out-loud reader, but authentic in both activities.  The combination of his voice and words draws you into the home and family that Jennie’s Boy celebrates, carries you away from other thoughts, and makes you echo the out-loud reading with out-loud laughing.  I wanted to text my wife and sister to tell them that coming to this event had been a wise move and that, several times, I caught myself not thinking about our loss.  But texting over the pasta and greens while someone on the stage recounted a difficult childhood seemed bad form, even if I had been wearing a black arm band and Jon’s image on my shirt. Besides, Johnston and Jennie’s Boy kept pulling me back with its humour and authenticity inducing me to not only laugh, but as is my want, to wonder how a writer can have that effect.   I thought of how dialogue that seems natural and funny only comes from an unnatural level of dedication and not-so-funny hard work.  

Long before this event and the writing of this book,  Wayne Johnston established himself as one of our great storytellers and as writer of a string of number one national bestsellers. 

Many of his other works drew on his past and other memoirs were bolstered by humour.  Others also tell of a mix of sad, warm, and funny times.  But this book has a special place in the collection as something focused on a distinctive time in his life.

In the mid-1960s when Wayne was seven, his family moved into a rundown house in the village of Goulds following eviction in St. John’s.  The house was across the street from his grandparents’ home, and he was to spend most of his time with them because poor health kept him out of school.

Like many people, I read his account of these times wondering how the hell was he still alive.  He was thin, weak, and sick.  He couldn’t sleep, couldn’t keep food down, and couldn’t stop what had been diagnosed as nervous coughing.  He had his tonsils, appendix, and more parts removed to no evident benefit. He lived in the shadow of a dead uncle Leonard who had died as a child with turberculous and a look that resembled his often bed-ridden nephew Wayne.

His mother Jennie had reason to think that this frail one of her four sons would not see old age.  Wayne’s childhood rested under the wet blanket of his father’s alcoholism and the family’s related poverty.  Wayne was a problem added to the stew.

So he spent his days with his grandmother, Jennie’s mother Lucy during the toughest part of his illness and childhood.  Lucy like others bemoaned Wayne’s condition in a way that both suggested he was a burden and cherished.  The embodiment of superstition and quirky Catholicism, Lucy praised the praying powers of a local seventh son of a seventh son while pushing Wayne toward the priesthood.  She cared for her frail grandson with compassion, but always with a  smile and words that hinted that he was both a pain to his family and loved.

Always, that backdrop of love stretched between generations, between siblings, and between parents.

It is all conveyed with the witty, easy expression associated with Newfoundlanders, who have mastered the balm of humour in difficult circumstance.  The balance of humour and struggle strikes me as more real and thus more touching than monocolour Grapes of Wrath extremes, which was generated from a place of anger and hate in Steinbeck. 

Me. I wanted to avoid the path to anger and to see a day when my son’s memory made me smile.

I thought this possible for three reasons:  One is that after eighteen years, I now smile most of the time when recalling my parents’ final days; a second reason for hope comes from the blessing of having had a final ICU conversation with a still optimistic and joking Jon.  Finally, I also saw a path from a tough moment to lighter thoughts in the blend of love and community support in the 1960s Goulds, Newfoundland of  Jennie’s Boy.

I have those supports in abundance.

The other ingredients needed to turn these thoughts into an award-winning book things - like talent, skill, and wit - remain elusive.  But I aways feel a little closer to them when I make the annual trip to Orillia to hear authors read their works and share their stories - even those of a difficult childhood -  even when shrouded in the death of a thirty-seven-year-old child.

Writing Exercise

Write, in dialogue only, a 500-word exchange between your maternal grandmother and you at age seven talking about your physical appearance.