The Colony of Unrequited Dreams

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams

Book - 1999
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The Colony of Unrequited Dreams , a Canadian bestseller, is a novel about Newfoundland that centres on the story of Joe Smallwood, the true-life controversial political figure who ushered the island through confederation with Canada and became its first premier. Narrated from Smallwood''s perspective, it voices a deep longing on the part of the Newfoundlander to do something significant, "commensurate with the greatness of the land itself". The New York Times said, "this prodigious, eventful, character-rich book is a noteworthy achievement: a biting, entertaining and inventive saga.... a brilliant and bravura literary performance".

Smallwood, born in 1900, is the first of thirteen children raised from the 'scruff' of Newfoundland, as opposed to the 'quality'. The colony is seen as an unworthy and negligible place: as his teacher from England says, "The worst of our lot comes over here, inbreeds for several hundred years and the end-product is a hundred thousand Newfoundlanders with Smallwood at the bottom of the barrel."

Smallwood, who still weighs only 75 pounds at the age of 20, seems an unlikely hero to fulfil what he sees as his mission: to transform the 'old lost land', with its lack of identity, into 'the new found land'; and meanwhile to rise "not from rags to riches, but from obscurity to world renown." With perseverance and determination, he sets about the task, becoming a journalist for a socialist newspaper in New York and then a union leader, at one point walking the 700-mile railway track across the island to sell memberships to the section-men living in shacks. He sees beyond his unpromising background, the cold and unrelenting hardship and isolation, envisioning a proud and great destiny. Eventually, a politician full of wild moneymaking schemes, he is swept into a world of intrigues and the machinations of the power elite, just as Newfoundland must decide whether to become an independent country or to join Canada.

In counterpoint to the earnest endeavours of Smallwood, champion of the poor and the workers, is the Dorothy Parker-like figure of his lifelong friend, Sheilagh Fielding. Their paths first cross at the private school from which Smallwood is expelled, falsely accused of writing a letter critical of the school, and thenceforth their lives are inextricably intertwined. Fielding becomes an acerbic newspaper columnist, a hard drinker with a sharp tongue who shares a strange love-hate relationship with Smallwood. Her cynical columns and personal journals are interspersed among Smallwood's account, along with her irreverent and satirical Condensed History of Newfoundland .

In writing a work of the imagination in part inspired by historical events, Johnston wanted "to fashion out of the formless infinitude of 'facts'...a work of art that would express a felt, emotional truth... Adherence to the 'facts' will not lead you safely through the labyrinthine pathways of the human heart." Johnston was 19 when he met the real Joe Smallwood; he was just starting out as a journalist, and Smallwood was less than complimentary about Johnston's reporting. Although the politician died only in 1991, little was written about his life before the age of fifty, allowing Johnston some license to imagine his formative influences.

"I wanted to write a big book about Newfoundland in scope and in vision. I couldn''t think of a bigger character whose life touched on more themes, involved the whole of Newfoundland more completely than Smallwood did." Smallwood saw Newfoundland in terms of "unrealized talent and unfulfilled ambition"; his life was somehow emblematic of the land. Moreover, says Johnston, "He was so prone to making mistakes and so fallible, and he combines so many contradictions in his personality. His quest, like that of many great literary figures of the past century, is to overcome these divisions." The completely invented character of Fielding, meanwhile, "is like me", says Johnston. "I share her view of Newfoundland."

The title of the book, Johnston says, evokes "the nostalgia Newfoundlanders have felt for the possibilities of the island, and that they still have for the future. Joe is always searching for something commensurate with the greatness of the land itself, but he can''t find it, and it''s driving him mad...Newfoundland is that kind of place. It makes you want to live up to the landscape, but on the other hand it offers you no resources to do so. There''s always this constant yearning that at least for my part helped me to start writing."

Smallwood's chronicle of his development from poor schoolboy to Father of the Confederation is a story full of epic journeys and thwarted loves, travelling from the ice floes of the seal hunt to New York City, in a style reminiscent at times of John Irving, Robertson Davies and Charles Dickens. Absorbing and entertaining, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams provides us with a deep perspective on the relationship between private lives and what comes to be understood as history and shows, as E. Annie Proulx commented, "Wayne Johnston is a brilliant and accomplished writer."
Publisher: Toronto : Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 1999, c1998
Edition: 1st Vintage Canada ed. --
ISBN: 9780676972153
Branch Call Number: FIC Johns
Characteristics: 562 p


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Aug 14, 2018

If someone had told me what sort of book Johnston written I would probably have pushed it away, rejected. Bad enough that it would be a Can-lit book but worse, it's about Newfoundland, a place I have never been to and with which, most absurdly, I would not be able to identify. And yet, this novel, perhaps sliding into the category of "chick lit" because it dare show emotion, put a lump in your throat and cause you to tear up, at least a little' in places. Colony is also a tragedy, a tragedy of misunderstanding, of secrets kept and secrets told. At the same time that it engages your emotions it also paints the pictures of the island; although the book is not a biography there's Joe Smallwood, the runt of a man, self conscious forever of his class, his education and, perhaps most importantly, his slight build; there are the seal-fishermen huddled together, frozen, knowing their rescue will come too late; and Smallwood, walking the the tracks of the railroad from end to end in the depths of a frozen winter signing up men to the union. There is the hunger; the shabbiness; y\the sharing of what little people have with the stranger. I'm glad no one told me what this book was about; I'm glad it gave me the chance to read a very good novel.

Jan 29, 2017

As the daughter of a Newfoundlander who left as a young man, and as I have only visited a handful of times, this title filled in some of the vital history necessary to understand this place. I wish I had read it before my grandparents died so I could ask them more about the times described by the author.

Bunny_Watson716 Dec 15, 2016

This is one of my all-time favourite Canadian novels! I have read it many times and have a deep affection for the characters - it's absolutely worth reading.

Dec 14, 2016

This book is amazing. My husband is from Newfoundland and as a (silly) American, I knew nothing of the area. Upon a recommendation, I picked this up and read right through it. It was a great history of the area and its people and fully engrossing. Beautifully written and does not feel as long as its many pages.

Apr 27, 2016

I loved this book. It was enthralling and informative, well written and funny. I know very little about the history of Newfoundland, it's the other end of the country and to be honest, from a cultural point of view, BC has more in common with Washington, Oregon and California than with the rest of Canada and I seldom think about what goes on out East.

While I realize much of this book is fictional, including one of the main characters, it fills in some very basic "how life was" in Newfoundland before joining Canada that I wasn't aware of. I certainly wasn't aware that they had been a Dominion or of the controversy over joining Canada.
The character of Fielding was fantastic, she was a Dorothy Parker-esque type person. Acerbic but fragile and full of great quips, she has an independent opinion on everything and tends to think more about herself than the big political issues. She is a great foil for Smallwood who wants to make a name for himself and tends to be depressingly serious and socialist conscious.

The story of Smallwood's life, as told by him, are alternated with sections of Fielding's diary and parts of the condensed history of Newfoundland that she is writing, very much in a sarcastic style. Her history made me laugh out loud several times, especially when they were about the unfairness of colonialism.

I polished off this book in three days, over the course of a week, though the majority of it was read on one Saturday, where I didn't move from my very comfortable chair for hours on end, except to get another cup of tea. I highly recommend this book.

Barbarajean Mar 01, 2015

I really enjoyed this book which had everything one could want in a book--plot, character, good writing, and history. I highly recommend it.

Feb 19, 2015

Couldn't determine where exactly the fiction and the history parted ways but I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

brianreynolds Apr 03, 2013

I am typically a harsh critic of historical fiction (a crude subject heading that allows for the inclusion of fictionalized history) so it was both surprising and enchanting to discover in Wayne Johnston's The Colony of Unrequited Dreams a beautiful story tucked into a bed of "real" events and people. For those easily side-tracked by history, for those that read primarily to "better themselves," beware the temptation to think this is the story of Joey Smallwood just because he is the first-person narrator of the hefty part of the tome. The character is a self-confessed windbag. Lest the reader be misled by the love we all hold for anyone with a recognizable nametag, Johnston gives Smallwood a lucid moment near the end where he is self-depicted as "...absurd, vain, pompous, strutting, and ambitious..." This is not the description of a character that I would willingly follow through his lifetime of foolishness, not without some incentive beyond merely cozying up to a fictional final father of Confederation. The real story is about Shelagh Fielding. She begins it. She ends it. She moves it. It is her unrelenting, inexplicable, unrequited love of Joey that allows the reader to have some hope, if little sympathy, for the bumbling accidental politician that one can only hope was a caricature of the real Smallwood. It is Fielding—with her razor wit, her strength, her poignant suffering, her ironic position as the saviour of Smallwood's career, his moral compass, his very life—that feeds the hungry reader. It is in her life, nestled in the same obscurity as Shawnawdithit's, we search for meaningful lessons, we see the reflection of the unforgiving landscape of the novel. It is her brave and stoic separation from the love of her children, her parents, her lover that trumps whatever losses to corruption and incompetence her countrymen have suffered. Never have I read a more palatable account of "real" suffering and loss.

Jan 27, 2013

Great piece of Canadiana writing.

Feb 03, 2012

Gave up pretty early on this one.

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Jul 16, 2012

To leave or not to leave, and having left, to stay away or to go back home. I knew of Newfoundlanders who had gone to their graves without having settled the question, some who never left but were forever planning to and some who went away for good but were forever on the verge of going home. Page 144

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