A World Elsewhere by Wayne Johnston
This is the time of year when most of the important Canadian literary novels are released – booksellers and reviewers are reading like crazy so that they can comment on these new releases. There are always some that I find wonderful – some that are disappointments – and some that are puzzling. The pleasure of opening the cover of a new book and making a discovery is what reading is all about.
Wayne Johnston’s new novel A World Elsewhere is one that I found to be a wonderful discovery – and in spite of some almost fatal flaws it is worth recommending. The reviews in the Globe and Mail and the National Post were good – however, none of the reviewers except Philip Marchand, had the nerve to complain about the puns that litter this manuscript. They are clever to be sure but when they persist past the time of two young men at Princeton they become, to this reader, an annoyance. What made me continue reading even while occasionally irritated, was the fact that the rest of this novel is so thoroughly wonderful.
The story is of two young men – Van the young heir of the Vanderluyden family (acknowledged in the introduction to be George Washington Vanderbilt II, the fourth and youngest son of William Henry Vanderbilt), the other is Landish Druken from Newfoundland, the son of a well-to-do sealer. Both men are, as the title indicated, from A World Elsewhere. Druken returns to Newfoundland where he finds himself disowned by his father in whose footsteps he refuses to follow, and he adopts the son of a sailor who perished under his fathers watch. Druken and the boy, Deacon, become in their own eyes a family. When their future together is threatened Druken appeals to Van for assistance and is rewarded with a ticket to New York and a position as a tutor in the home that Van has built in North Carolina.
Now, there is sometimes an odd synchronicity that happens. I was reading this book on a day when a friend arrived at our cottage, having just been in North Carolina, teaching at Penland School of Craft, near the town Asheville – where the home of the Vanderbilt’s, Biltmore, is located. Another friend has taught there every year for the past 25 years – I wonder if Wayne Johnston had any idea how many American crafts people are now going to be reading this novel!
Research tells us that George Washington Vanderbilt II “had inherited $1 million from his grandfather and received another million on his 21st birthday from his father. Upon his father's death, he inherited $5 million more, as well as the income from a $5 million trust fund. 1888, when he was twenty-six, he decided to build a country home. In 1889, he purchased acreage near Asheville, North Carolina and began construction of the Biltmore Estate. He continued buying land until the estate eventually encompassed 228 square miles Modeled after the great French Chateaux of the Loire Valley, the 250-room estate on 125,000 acres would be the largest of all the Vanderbilt houses. It remains the largest home in the United States and one of the most prominent remaining examples of the Gilded Age. In1898, George W. Vanderbilt married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser, and they had one daughter, Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt born in 1900.”
This is the man whose life has been taken by Wayne Johnston and turned into a fiction. He has mastered the art of historical fiction and written a compelling story of the relationship between two men. It is also an examination of what it means to be a the child of a parent who has set you on the path of your life, and what happens if you choose to step off this path – and of what it means to a man to become a parent, and the effect of their own childhood experiences on the men they are as adults.
A World Elsewhere could well be one of the literary award winners this fall – but there are still more contenders to be published, and eager readers waiting to read them.