Sunday 21 August 2022

First Snow, Last Light by Wayne Johnston

Sometimes a traumatic event that occurs in childhood, that will color the rest of one’s life.  That is the driver of the storyline in First Snow, Last Light, a novel that begins in the late 1930’s in Newfoundland.  The traumatic event that occurs is something that is the most feared thing that can happen to a child; the sudden disappearance of their parents.  That is what happened to 12 year old Ned, the protagonist in this novel.  What  had always seemed to be a stable and secure family-life to Ned, suddenly evaporated.

Before Newfoundland became a province of Canada, Ned’s father, who had come from a rather poor family, had managed to make himself the right hand man of Sir Richard, the person who ran Newfoundland.  Megan, Ned’s mother had grown up in Britain, and after meeting  Edgar, Ned’s father who was there studying as a Rhodes Scholar, married him, and moved with Edgar when he returned to Newfoundland.  Both parents loved and doted on Ned and his family life seemed secure.

  A corruption scandal caused Sir Richard to be ousted from office and Ned’s father lost his job and couldn’t find another.  Megan begged for the family to move back to her home country of Britain, but soon the family became so desolate, there was no money to pay for the fares for such a trip, even if Edgar allowed it.

There also is a unique character in the novel that I haven’t mentioned;  Fielding.  She was a very tall, crippled, woman journalist, with a prickly personality and a sharp tongue, who Ned’s father secretly loved and often invited over to their house for dinner, although whenever she came, she never ate anything.  She lived in a hotel full of prostitutes, and had a reputation of being a heavy drinker.

On a snowy November day, 12 year old Ned walked home from school and found that his house was locked and dark, void of both his mother or father.  Everything else in the house was like it was when Ned had gone to school.  He had to break into his house, and there he waited, thinking something must have suddenly come up, causing his parents  to leave, and figured they would soon return, but they never did.   

In a panic Ned sought out his track coach, Father Duggan, at his school.  Duggan came back with Ned to the house to stay with him until his parents returned, days passed, weeks, and month’s passed, but Ned’s parents never returned.  They had totally vanished.

Father Duggan was allowed to live with Ned in his house, and became sort of a surrogate father for Ned.  Ned was a talented athlete and as he matured, under the tutelage of Father Duggan, broke all kinds of track records for the mile and high jump.  Ned eventually got a track scholarship to a university in Boston.  

He loved Boston and New York, and was impressed by the “go out and get rich” attitude of the Americans.  After seeing the poverty his family experienced after his father lost his job, Ned vowed to himself, that he would get rich enough so that he would  never be dependent on someone else for a job.  

He decided that when he went back to Newfoundland he would start a tabloid newspaper, like he saw in the US, and make his fortune.  Upon his return to Newfoundland, that is what he did.

Ned’s father’s side of the family which had a bit of am unsavory reputation played an important part in his life after the disappearance of his parents, but they were people that Ned didn’t enjoy being around.  On his return to Newfoundland, Ned continued to see Father Duggan and Fielding, as he became very wealthy, first with his tabloid newspaper, then with several stores, and eventually by establishing the only television station in the Province. 

Father Duggan and Fielding, both loved Ned as a person, but not the wealth or the power he was acquiring.  The mystery of his parent’s disappearance continued to dominate Ned’s thoughts, and he spent huge amounts of money trying to discover what had happened to them.

The novel is full of unexpected turns:  On the night before Newfoundland became part of Canada, Brendan, the last baby born to be born in Old Newfoundland, miraculously survived after his mother died giving birth, and Ned adopted the baby and allowed Ruby, the baby’s aunt and only relative, to live in his house to raise him.  Brendan becomes like Ned’s son, and Ned often has him appear on Ned’s late night television program, where Ned talks about whatever he wants, often about his parent’s disappearance.

Although there were long sections during my reading of the novel when I wondered where it was going, slowly over time, clues about what caused Ned’s parent’s to disappear were slowly revealed. I enjoyed the novel’s mystery, it’s unique characters, and learning a bit more about Newfoundland history and culture as I read.

I do wonder about why there is a photo of a blond girl with her face turned away on the cover of the novel, since such a character doesn’t appear anywhere in the novel.  Maybe whoever designed the cover promised his girlfriend he would put her picture on the cover of a book. 

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