Wayne Johnston’s Featured Book

The Mystery of Right and Wrong

The reader goes skittering through Wayne Johnston’s novels, driven inexorably forward on the force of his characters, on the power of his wit. Unlike most recent bestselling novels that are remembered for the plane flight and then promptly forgotten, Wayne’s stories have characters who move in and take up permanent residence.” Mary Walsh

In The Mystery of Right and Wrong, Wayne Johnston reveals haunting family secrets he’s kept for more than 30 years, unfolding them in a novel that grapples with sexual abuse, male violence, and madness.

Wade Jackson, a young man from a Newfoundland outport, wants to be a writer. In the university library in St. John’s, where he goes every day to absorb the great books of the world, he encounters the fascinating, South African-born Rachel van Hout, and soon they are lovers.

Rachel is the youngest of four van Hout daughters. Her Dutch-born father, Hans, lived in Amsterdam during WWII, and says he was in the Dutch resistance. After the war, he emigrated to South Africa, where he met his wife, Myra, had his daughters and worked as an accounting professor at the University of Cape Town. Something happened, though, that caused him to uproot his family and move them all, unhappily, to Newfoundland.

Wade soon discovers that the beautiful van Hout daughters are each in their own way a wounded soul. The oldest, Gloria, at 28 has a string of broken marriages behind her. Carmen is addicted to every drug her Afrikaner drug-pusher husband, Fritz, can lay his hands on. Bethany, a.k.a. Deathany, the most sardonic and self-deprecating of the sisters, is fighting a losing battle with anorexia. And then there is Rachel, who reads The Diary of Anne Frank obsessively, and diarizes her days in a secret language of her own invention, writing to the point of breakdown and beyond. As the truth works its way inevitably to the surface, Wade learns that nothing in the world of the van Hout’s is what it seems, and that Rachel’s obsession with Anne Frank has deeper and more disturbing roots than he could ever have imagined.

Wayne Johnston takes beautiful risks here, bringing the abuser, Hans, to life largely through the verses of the ballad Hans composes to indoctrinate his little girls. Confronting the central mystery of his own and Rachel’s lives, Wayne has transfigured the “material”, creating a tour-de-force that pulls the reader toward a conclusion both inevitable and impossible to foresee. The History of Right and Wrong is a masterwork from one of the country’s most critically acclaimed and beloved writers that is both compulsively readable and heart-stopping in the vital truth it reveals.

Buy the Book:
Owl’s Nest Books (Calgary) | Shelf Life Books (Calgary) | Glass Bookshop (Edmonton) |  Flying Books (Ontario) | Massy Books (B.C.) | Indigo

Borrow the Book from the Library:
Calgary Public Library

Wayne Johnston’s Other Book

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is a novel about Newfoundland that centres on the story of Joe Smallwood, the true-life controversial political figure who ushered the island through confederation with Canada and became its first premier. Narrated from Smallwood’s perspective, it voices a deep longing on the part of the Newfoundlander to do something significant, “commensurate with the greatness of the land itself”.

Smallwood, born in 1900, is the first of thirteen children raised from the “scruff” of Newfoundland, as opposed to the “quality”. Smallwood seems an unlikely hero to fulfil what he sees as his mission: to transform the “old lost land”, with its lack of identity, into “the new found land”. With perseverance and determination, he sets about the task, becoming a journalist for a socialist newspaper in New York and then a union leader, at one point walking the 700-mile railway track across the island to sell memberships to the section-men living in shacks. He sees beyond his unpromising background, the cold and unrelenting hardship and isolation, envisioning a proud and great destiny. Eventually, a politician full of wild moneymaking schemes, he is swept into a world of intrigues and the machinations of the power elite, just as Newfoundland must decide whether to become an independent country or to join Canada.

In counterpoint to the earnest endeavours of Smallwood is the Dorothy Parker-like figure of his lifelong friend, Sheilagh Fielding. Fielding becomes an acerbic newspaper columnist, a hard drinker with a sharp tongue who shares a strange love-hate relationship with Smallwood.

Smallwood’s chronicle of his development from poor schoolboy to Father of the Confederation is a story full of epic journeys and thwarted loves, travelling from the ice floes of the seal hunt to New York City, in a style reminiscent at times of John Irving, Robertson Davies and Charles Dickens. Absorbing and entertaining, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams provides us with a deep perspective on the relationship between private lives and what comes to be understood as history.

Buy the Book:
Owl’s Nest Books (Calgary) | Shelf Life Books (Calgary) | Glass Bookshop (Edmonton) | Flying Books (Ontario) | Massy Books (B.C.) |  Indigo

Borrow the Book from the Library:
Calgary Public Library

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