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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
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.