cover image Baltimore's Mansion

Baltimore's Mansion

Wayne Johnston, Author Doubleday Books $25 (288p) ISBN 978-0-385-50031-9

Returning to the Newfoundland trenchantly chronicled in his acclaimed recent novel The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Johnston has crafted a sensitive, occasionally elusive memoir centered on three generations of men in his family. As in the novel, Newfoundland's ""thirty thousand square miles of bogs and barrens"" prove an affecting backdrop. His grandfather eked out a living as a blacksmith--a dying profession in the tiny town of Ferryland--while his father, Arthur, trained as an agricultural technician but became a ""fish-preoccupied, fish-infatuated man"" who took a job as a codfish industry inspector for the Fisheries of Canada. Striking passages recount Arthur's routine days spent tasting cod in a laboratory, returning home unable to bear the sight or smell of fish, and his travels around the province shutting down revoltingly unkempt processing plants. Johnston remains preoccupied with the fierce debates over the former British colony's 1948 confederation with Canada, a stinging defeat for his father and others who yearned for an independent Newfoundland nation. That bitterly contested vote, which saddled the province with billions of dollars of debt and hastened the demise of its rich, insular culture, also gives rise to this memoir's central mystery: an enigmatic family secret that darkened the relationship between Johnston's father and grandfather. Apparently a dispute over loyalty to Newfoundland, this betrayal-tinged affair seems somewhat contrived as the book's emotional touchstone and remains a disconcerting false note in an otherwise skillfully composed reminiscence. (June)