The Colony of Unrequited Dreams
By Wayne Johnston
Seems fitting that I sit here writing this particular blog post on St. Patrick's Day, three beers into my evening while listening to traditional Celtic folk music. While this novel has little to do with Ireland or the Irish, it does have everything to do with another island that was predominantly colonized by the Irish. Newfoundland owes much to Irish culture and although the cultures are unequivocally unique, they retain many similarities, none of which I'm going to explain here. I just wanted to make note of the fact that the date works well with the blogpost. That doesn't happen all that often. Anyway. I'll be keeping you updated on my beer consumption throughout this post. Hopefully my spelling, diction and clarity do not suffer more than they usually do. Once this gets posted, I promise I will not edit it.
Full disclosure: One side of my family is fiercely Newfoundlander (not Newfie, thankyouverymuch) and although I have never been to Newfoundland (one of my life's great regrets thus far) I feel like there is a part of me that belongs on the America's easternmost outpost where, as the saying goes, the trout are easier to catch than tuberculosis.
I grew up in the shadow of "Down Home" via my grandparents (displaced Newfoundlanders living "away" in Toronto) who retained their uncomplaining Newfoundland character, their barometer on the wall and their thick pea-soup accents (my Grandfather, Cornerbrook... my grandmother, Greenspond, both locations are mentioned in this book, by the way). While they were not nationalists of any sort, there always remained within them a real sense of where they came from. Newfoundland was never far from any topic of conversation in my family growing up.
I vividly recall discovering my grandfather's Newfoundland flag in the basement of their Toronto home when I was about 11 years old. I'd never known anyone in my family to own a flag and it's beautiful colors were too much for a young boy to leave unmolested. I pulled it out of its hiding spot and brought it to my grandfather to ask what it was. My grandfather was a gruff man. Over the years, my mother and aunt had alluded to the full tilt of his legendary temper, but I'd never seen it until that day I stood in his kitchen, Newfoundland flag dragging through the grime on the kitchen floor. It was a roar that would reduce the toughest men to tears. Mercifully, I never saw it again. Needless to say, Newfoundland was in my grandfather's blood.
Most people know that Newfoundland became Canada's tenth province in 1949. What few people remember is that Newfoundland was briefly, like Texas, an independent nation. From 1907 through 1932 Newfoundland was the "other" North American nation. However, the depression hit Newfoundland hard and in 1932 amid a litany of scandals and economic disasters Newfoundland was forced to re-colonialize with Britain (The only instance in history of a nation willingly reverting to a colonial state) until such time that it could sustain itself. When the time came, long-time Newfoundland politician Joey Smallwood championed the notion of confederacy with Canada. After a heated referendum (Smallwood championed confederacy), Newfoundland narrowly decided to throw its hat in with Canada. To this day, Joey Smallwood remains a controversial figure in Newfoundland.
The result is that Canada gained and retained a nation that it did not understand and Newfoundland joined a country that it also did not understand. Seventy years on, and Newfoundland is still considered part of and distinct from Canada. The province that doesn't quite fit the mould. One can lump the provinces into groups. The Western Provinces, Ontario and Quebec (those age old enemies) and the Maritimes. Newfoundland alone stands alone with its odd time zone ("Hockey Night in Canada. Game starts at 7:00pm. 8:30 in Newfoundland). Newfoundland is different.
The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is also different. It a strange sort of historical fiction. It centers on the life and times of the aforementioned Joey Smallwood, champion of Confederation. It chronicles his life from poverty in a St. John's slum, through his short stint writing for a socialist newspaper in New York to his return to Newfoundland and his improbable rise to power via the Liberal Party of Sir Robert Squires and, subsequently, his adoption of confederacy with Canada in 1949. From an historical perspective, Colony of Unrequited Dreams is fascinating to anyone interested in Newfoundland history.
The novel takes the form of a lifelong dialogue between Smallwood and a fictional journalist named Sheilagh Fielding and an ambiguous relationship between the two (along with a third fictional character named Prowse). Most of the novel is written in the voice of Smallwood though Fielding's journal entires and chapters from her Condensed History of Newfoundland are interspersed though out the narrative.
I thoroughly enjoyed the sections that dealt with his fictional characters, particularly Fielding (although I must make mention of Johnston's hilarious characterization of Joey Smallwood's father). Fielding is the most compelling character in the entire novel and remains so throughout. It's the character of Joey Smallwood that left me feeling a little nonplussed. Despite being the primary voice of the novel and the most active historical figure in the book, he comes across as a bit of a milquetoast, unsure of himself (and often petty) that it becomes impossible to believe that a man of his sort could possibly rise to the become Newfoundland's first Premier (a position he would hold from Confederation in 1949 until 1972).
Perhaps Johnston, a native Newfoundlander, felt constrained by the notion of fictionalizing such an important figure in the history of Newfoundland. Certainly it can't be easy to fictionalize the life of a man still very much in the realm of the collective consciousness. It would be like writing a fictionalized account of the presidency of Ronald Reagan during which he was maintaining a clandestine relationship with Katherine Hepburn. Although Joey Smallwood retired from politics before I was born and died when I was still in high school, from what I understand of the man, he was a political idealist. A man of big ideas and big dreams. None of that character comes out in Johnston's characterization, and I think the overall story suffers as a result.
The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is by no account a bad book. In fact in many respects (historical, social, literary) it is Wayne Johnston's opus and worthy of a read, especially if you enjoy Canlit and/or anything to do with Newfoundland. I just can't abide cardboard characters, especially one that I think deserved a bit more love and attention. It sort of feels like Johnston is dragging Smallwood's personality across the floor of my grandparent's kitchen. Good thing my grandfather ain't around to see this, Johnston. Good thing, indeed.
OK, time to go pass out.
This is a Canadian novel and thus must be put through my patented CanLit Test.
These are the 11 scientifically chosen questions that determine how Canadian a novel (in this case The Colony of Unrequited Dreams) really is. This is science, people... pay attention!:
1. Novel set between 1900~1945.
Yes. Almost exclusively.
2. Novel is set in/on a small town/island/northern settlement.
Newfoundland is indeed an island.
3. Novel involves a strong/complicated/deranged female protagonist on a journey of self-identification.
4. Novel involves one or more conservative/despicable/sexually deviant men.
You bet. Smallwood's father, Hines, Fielding's Father, Prowse, Reeves.
5. Story involves one or more hard-boiled sidekicks.
Fielding is the very definition of hard-boiled.
6. Story involves an unwanted pregnancy/abortion/infant mortality.
7. Story mentions the Dionne quintuplets/Edward's abdication/Vimy Ridge.
Much discussion of World War I. Yes!
8. Story involves a major snowstorm.
Of course. What we in the rest of the world would call the "end of the world," a Newfoundlander calls.... rain.
9. Story contains mild to overt anti-Americanism.
Just a smidgen.
10. Story explores multiculturalism.
11. Story contains mild to overt anti-Religion themes.
Oh boy, yes!
The Colony of Unrequited Dreams gets 10/11 on the My Life In Books CanLit Tester. 'Oly 'Thunderin' Jesus, 'tis a dory'ful o' screech, bye.