Book: The Colony of Unrequited Dreams

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The Colony of Unrequited Dreams: A Novel

Author: Wayne Johnston
Publisher: Anchor

“The Colony of Unrequited Dreams” is Newfoundland—that vast, haunting near-continent upon which the two lovers and adversaries of this miraculously inventive novel pursue their ambitions.

Joey Smallwood, sprung from almost Dickensian privation, is a scholarship boy at a private school, where his ready wit bests the formidably tart-tongued Sheilagh Fielding. Their dual fates become forever linked by an anonymous letter to a local paper critical of the school—a letter whose mysterious authorship will weigh heavily on their lives.

Driven by socialist dreams and political desire, Smallwood will walk a railroad line the breadth of Newfoundland in a journey of astonishing power and beauty, to unionize the workers—and make his name. Fielding, now a popular newspaper columnist, provides—in her journalism, her diaries, and her bleakly hilarious “Condensed History of Newfoundland”—a satirical and eloquent counternarrative to Smallwood’s story.

As the decades pass and Smallwood’s rise converges with Newfoundland’s emerging autonomy, these two vexed characters must confront their own frailties and secrets—and their mutual (if doomed) love.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams combines erudition, unflagging narrative brio, and emotional depth in a manner reminiscent of the best of Robertson Davies and John Irving. Set in a landscape already made familiar to American readers by Annie Proulx and Howard Norman, it establishes Wayne Johnston as a novelist who is as profound as he is funny, with an unerringly ironic sense of the intersection where private lives and history collide.


In 1949, Joseph Smallwood became the first premier of the newly federated Canadian province of Newfoundland. Predictably, and almost immediately, his name retreated to the footnotes of history. And yet, as Wayne Johnston makes plain in his epic and affectionate fifth novel, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Smallwood’s life was endearingly emblematic, an instance of an extraordinary man emerging at a propitious moment. The particular charm of Johnston’s book, however, lies not merely in unveiling a career that so seamlessly coincided with the burgeoning self-consciousness of Newfoundland itself, but in exposing a simple truth—namely, that history is no more than the accretion of lived lives.

Born into debilitating poverty, Smallwood is sustained by a bottomless faith in his own industry. His unabashed ambition is to “rise not from rags to riches, but from obscurity to world renown.” To this end, he undertakes tasks both sublime and baffling—walking 700 miles along a Newfoundland railroad line in a self-martyring union drive; narrating a homespun radio spot; and endlessly irritating and ingratiating himself with the Newfoundland political machine. His opaque and constant incitement is an unconsummated love for his childhood friend, Sheilagh Fielding. Headstrong and dissolute, she weaves in and out of Smallwood’s life like a salaried goad, alternately frustrating and illuminating his ambitions. Smallwood is harried as well by Newfoundland’s subtle gravity, a sense that he can never escape the tug of his native land, since his only certainty is the island itself—that “massive assertion of land, sea’s end, the outer limit of all the water in the world, a great, looming, sky-obliterating chunk of rock.”

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams bogs down after a time in its detailing of Smallwood’s many political intrigues and in the lingering matter of a mysterious letter supposedly written by Fielding. However, when he speculates on the secret motives of his peers, or when he reveals his own hyperbolic fantasies and grandiose hopes—matters no one would ever confess aloud—the novel is both apt and amiable. Best of all is to watch Smallwood’s inevitable progress toward a practical cynicism. It seems nothing less than miraculous that his countless disappointments pave the way for his ascension, that his private travails ultimately align with the land he loves. This is history resuscitated. —Ben Guterson

The colony of the title is Newfoundland, which from the early 1600s to as recently as 1948 was a British colony. Then at a referendum its sturdily independent inhabitants had the choice between outright independence or confederation with Canada. They chose the latter, by a whisker, and the man who led them in that decision was Joe Smallwood, the subject of this book. Although there is a lot of history here, this is emphatically a novel, richly imagined and enormously entertaining. Joe Smallwood has a tumultuous life: raised by a drunken, larger-than-life father, (who likes to cry out that Newfoundland should have been called Old Lost Land), everything seems to go wrong for Joe, from being wrongfully expelled from school to a succession of disastrous career moves, and plenty of sheer bad luck. “Up to the age of forty-six,” he wryly observes, “I would have been voted by those who knew me to be the man last likely to warrant a biography”. Yet this is a biography of sorts, by turns funny, moving, satirical and mysterious. It also beautifully evokes the harsh landscape of the colony itself, “the Elba of the North Atlantic”. There’s no doubt about it: Wayne Johnston is up there with Robertson Davies, Margaret Atwood and E. Annie Proulx. Another testament to the extraordinary strength of the modern Canadian novel.—Christopher Hart

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Early in Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, the young narrator, Joe Smallwood, meets D. W. Prowse, the author of A History of Newfoundland. The aged Prowse advises: “You know what I would do if I had time, boy…. I would write about one man, like Rousseau did, like Boswell did, one representative Newfoundlander…. I would follow him around and write down everything he said and did and everything other people said about him.” In Johnston’s novel, Smallwood does just that, honestly and hilariously chronicling his own development—from poor schoolboy and union organizer to “Father of the Confederation” (with Canada) and beyond.

Turn-of-the-century Newfoundland, as an unwanted colony of England, severely lacked a sense of identity. Smallwood, training himself to draw a map of the island from memory, admits that “it was the map of England I saw when I closed my eyes.” Fittingly, he also has difficulty defining himself. Born into the “scruff” (as opposed to the “quality”) of society, the diminutive Smallwood manages to enter Bishop Feild College, a “training ground for snobs.” Shortly after his arrival, he is falsely accused of writing a letter critical of the school and sending it to the newspaper. He is forced to leave. Despite his shortened tenure, Smallwood’s experiences at the Feild, and the people he meets there, continue to affect the shape and color of the rest of his life.

He sets out from the Feild, “[I]ll at ease in [his] own world and in other worlds unwelcome.” This description is courtesy of Sheilagh Fielding, a student attheadjoining girl’s school; Fielding plays a mysterious role in Smallwood’s expulsion and is a continuous presence throughout the novel. Cynical, alcoholic, wielding a sharp cane and a sharper tongue, she serves as a friend, confidante, and thorn in Smallwood’s side. Their strange relationship serves as the narrative’s emotional framework, and the friction between them provides the novel’s most electrical moments. As Smallwood seeks causes to champion and believe in, Fielding exults in exposing the weakness and hypocrisy of such causes. “She was called a fence-sitter and was challenged to defend herself,” Smallwood recalls, “which she did by saying the accusation might or might not be true.” While Smallwood and Fielding (thankfully) never do come to a peaceful understanding, their lifelong attraction is fascinating and propulsive. The energy and perspective Fielding’s character provides is multiplied by the inclusion of her writings—columns, letters, journals, and the brilliantly caustic Condensed History of Newfoundland.

Smallwood’s mixture of patriotism and insecurity first finds its outlet in journalism, then in politics. While writing an article about a sealing voyage, he witnesses a disaster in which several sealers are lost in a storm. This affects him deeply, and he decides he must somehow champion the cause of workers against those who exploit them. He becomes a socialist and eventually attempts to organize the section-men of the cross-island railway. Walking almost 700 miles along the tracks, he relishes the landscape (“the unfoundland that will make us great some day”) and the isolated people who inhabit it. His love for Newfoundland grows, as does his desire to bolster a sense of national pride and identity.

The novel, a combination of real people (as was Smallwood), historical facts, and fictional manipulations, is a sprawling and powerful entertainment. At times, such as the sealing disaster and the cross-island walk, the politics of Smallwood are made personal and emotional in a way that some of the later, more formally political developments are not; however, his character is so well drawn, and his early years so vivid, that their energy carries over and infuses all that follows. And Johnston’s prose, especially in describing the Newfoundland landscape, is breathtakingly sharp and deeply wise—it makes concrete the basis of Smallwood’s inspiration: “There was a beauty everywhere, but it was the bleak beauty of sparsity, scarcity and stuntedness, with nothing left but what a thousand years ago had been the forest floor, a landscape clear-cut by nature that never would recover on its own. It was a beauty so elusive, so tantalizingly suggestive of something you could not quite put into words that it could drive you mad and, however much you loved it, make you want to get away from it and recall it from some city and content yourself with knowing it was there.”

Stumbling, always striving, Smallwood attempts (and often fails) at further organizing, at writing an encyclopedia of Newfoundland, at hosting a radio show. Finally, surprising even himself, he becomes a politician on the national stage, just as Newfoundland must decide whether to become an independent country or to join Canada. It is here, in the book’s later sections, that Wayne Johnston’s skills as a novelist are most startling. Loose ends—minor characters, various (seeming) digressions, the secrets of what happened at the Feild—all unite to tangle and illuminate Smallwood’s life.

Perhaps most satisfying is the extent to which Smallwood realizes the task set for him by D. W. Prowse. Describing himself near the end of the novel, he says: “A politician should believe that the welfare of his people depends on his success. Everything I do for me I do for them. And so the day may arrive when to tell the difference between selfishness and selflessness becomes impossible.” Smallwood’s attempts to understand and promote Newfoundland ultimately help him to define himself; in the process, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams provides us with a deep perspective not only on a fascinating character and his homeland but on the close relationship between private lives and what comes to be understood as history. —Peter Rock

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