First Snow, Last Light, is Johnston’s latest installment in a possibly-trilogy that began with The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. I read and enjoyed that book when it was first released years ago (loved the stage adaptation even more) but did not read the follow-up book, The Custodian of Paradise. This may be just as well, since in First Snow, Last Light Johnston’s best-known and most beloved character, Sheilagh Fielding, claims The Custodian of Paradise is a story she made up, an alternate history she concocted for herself. Fielding is back First Snow, Last Light, as memorable as ever, and although the story that surrounds her may not be as powerful as Johnston’s version of the Smallwood story in Colony, Fielding remains one of the great original characters of Canadian literature.
Johnston is doing something tricky and admirable with historical fiction in these novels — writing a version of relatively recent history that includes real-life characters like Joey Smallwood, Sir Richard Squires and many others, alongside fictional characters. Sometimes the fictional characters, like Sheilagh Fielding, are purely the product of Johnston’s imagination; real historical characters like Smallwood (who doesn’t really appear in First Snow) are re-imagined as fiction. Then, somewhere in the middle ground in between, are fictional characters who are obviously inspired by real people, like Ned Vatcher, the main character in First Snow, Last Light.
Ned is the son of Edgar Vatcher, a boy from a poor family on Shea Heights who wins a scholarship, makes good, marries an Englishwoman who never settles into Newfoundland life, and winds up working for the widely-loathed prime minister Squires. On a snowy winter day in 1936, teenaged Ned comes home to find his parents gone. This is odd enough, as his mother rarely leaves the house — but far stranger is the fact that they never return, and stranger still, no trace is found — of them, of their bodies, of the car they drove off in.
Ned grows up to manhood under the shadow of this mystery, watched over by his father’s odd and angry extended family, by his priest and athletic coach Father Duggan, and by the enigmatic Fielding, who Ned believes his father might have been in love with. Ned goes away to the US for college on an athletic scholarship, decides to get rich, comes home to start a magazine inspired by the American tabloids, and eventually starts Newfoundland’s first TV station. And this is the point at which, if you hadn’t already realized it, it dawns on the reader who knows Newfoundland history that you’re reading about a fictional character whose life is at least loosely based on that of one of our most famous, larger-than-life real characters, Geoff Stirling. (If you’ve never heard of Geoff Stirling, please read this).
Obviously, the parallels aren’t exact. Presumably Johnston wanted to take more liberties with his Stirlingesque character than history allowed him to take with his Smallwoodesque Smallwood character, so Ned Vatcher is not Geoff Stirling. Stirling, whatever he was driven by, was not driven to solve the mystery of his parents’ disappearance, as Ned Vatcher is. (And my father, who remembers most of the real-life characters here and knew them personally, pointed out to me that some aspects of Ned Vatcher’s life in the novel are borrowed not just from Stirling but from Joseph Butler, Sr., another Newfoundland media pioneer. Ned Vatcher’s pilot’s license and habit of flying along the Newfoundland coast solo are a tip of the hat to Butler, who died in a plane accident in 1954). But Stirling is the most obvious real-life antecedent to Ned Vatcher, and to me, the only real weakness in an otherwise fine and beautifully-written piece of historical fiction is that the fictional creation is a pale shadow of the historical original.
You probably could write a character as bizarre, outsize, larger-than-life as the real Geoff Stirling — Wayne Johnston certainly has the talent to do so — but Johnston hasn’t done it here. For all his personal quirks and tragic history, Ned Vatcher often remains somewhat of a cipher at the heart of this novel, never as fascinating as the real character that inspired him. Once again, as in Colony, it’s Fielding who steals the spotlight, and whose character arc from the previous book (or books if you read Custodian) reaches an unexpected and, for me, quite satisfying resolution here. We also find out the solution to the mystery of the Missing Vatchers, as the conclusion to this glimpse into a long and turbulent period of Newfoundland history.