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JOAN SULLIVAN: Scott Linehan’s compendium of N.L’s brushes with fame is fun but could use a few tweaks

“And the Tony Goes to … Newfoundland and Labrador on the World Stage,” by Scott Linehan; Boulder Books; $19.95; 160 pages.
“And the Tony Goes to … Newfoundland and Labrador on the World Stage,” by Scott Linehan; Boulder Books; $19.95; 160 pages. - Contributed

One March morning, rushing home to collect a forgotten file, author Scott Linehan chanced to overhear a “Today” show segment with Tom Brokaw, about “Come From Away” and the events that had inspired the now massively successful production.

Linehan’s curiosity was piqued. “How often does this happen? How often does Newfoundland and Labrador factor in pop culture?”

There are already compilations of Newfoundland and Labrador trivia, but “And the Tony Goes to …” skews different. This book “is about those times when Newfoundland and Labrador caught the international spotlight or had a moment of stardom.” As such, the title nods towards the critical awards and box office numbers “Come From Away” has generated on Broadway and in London’s West End.

The book opens with a general survey of Newfoundland and Labrador’s climate, geography, topography, anthropology, millennia of exploration and settlement and demographics (N.L. “residents account for 0.000075 per cent of the world’s population”). From there the chapters are laid out chronologically, from 1900 up to and through the Second World War, and then by the decade after.

Among many other topics, Linehan notes how the Prohibition era “allegedly” brought Al Capone to St. John’s; his strategic goal was St-Pierre-Miquelon, a vital source of booze. As to that: “In a strange twist of geography, the trip from Newfoundland to St-Pierre — with its time zone 30 minutes ahead of Newfoundland’s — is one of the few experiences on the planet where you will set your clock ahead, not back, when travelling west.”

Integral to the story of “Come From Away,” Newfoundland and Labrador, and especially Gander, had great aviation significance. Gander was once the largest airport in the world, was a key component to the Second World War ferry command, and its positioning (and runway length) is why all “the plane people” landed there on 9/11. Mid-20th century Hollywood, too, glamourously sashayed through Gander — and projected this province on its screens, as in “The Spirit of St. Louis,” with Jimmy Stewart as Charles Lindbergh sighting St. John’s from his cockpit window. (In another of the many other examples Linehan has discovered, Agents 86 and 99 of “Get Smart” are ordered to locate and neutralize a malignant mastermind hiding off the coast of “Newfinlind.”)

Not all the stories come through TV or film. There are lots of fact-based accounts as well. “September 1, 1975, the Concorde made two return flights from Paris to Gander, on the same day, making it the first aircraft to fly across the Atlantic four times within a single day. As a side note, when the pilots first landed in Gander, they went to the local Holiday Inn (renamed the Irving West hotel) to refresh themselves before their return flight to Paris. Hotel assistant general manager Vince Linehan welcomed the pilots and offered them a complimentary room for their brief layover. As a return thank you, the pilots invited Linehan to join them on their trip back to Paris and return to Gander later that same day. Linehan readily agreed. However, the general manager, hearing of the generous offer, took the seat for himself.”

While there’s justifiable attention paid to Gander, the book’s focus is very much province-wide. There’s coverage of royal tours, papal visits, stopovers by political figures like Colin Powell, and the international news coverage of New Year’s Eve 1999.

Of course, not all encounters have been cordial or respectful. Brigitte Bardot is not a fan. Neither is Paul McCartney. Dialogue on “Ellen,” Ellen DeGeneres’s 1990s sitcom, included the line “It’s true. Those Newfies are so stupid.” 

But most are more open-hearted and amiable. Meg Ryan, for example, has visited twice, and with then-fiancé John Cougar Mellencamp bought the first memory stone in Bannerman Park. And chef Anthony Bourdain was notably enticed and enchanted by the local cuisine. In tandem with this, the book examines how the province also goes out into the world, via the likes of actor Allan Hawco, the musicians of Great Big Sea and director Brad Peyton. And, of course, “Come From Away.”

There are some factual errors. The Royal St. John’s Regatta is the oldest continuing sporting event in North America, but it has not run “annually” since 1816 — it was on hiatus during both World Wars.

And the writing is, not choppy exactly, but a bit of a jumble of every piece of research. Which is fine, as Linehan wants to be encyclopedic as well as entertaining. I feel the organization could have been better helped with a livelier design to service this, maybe a layout less chapter-y and more list-y. It’s dully text-heavy with kind of generic black-and-white photos. It should just look more fun. And an Index could punch it up as well.

Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.


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