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.”