The Colony of Unrequited Dreams
Knopf Canada, 1998
First published in: Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Review by Kerry Riley
Former Newfoundlander Wayne Johnston’s recent fictionalized account of Joey Smallwood’s quest to bring Newfoundland into Canadian confederation, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, was the source of some controversy upon its publication. Questions were raised about the propriety of appropriating an individual life story for ones own purposes, about introducing fictional elements into, embellishing, and re-working a personal narrative. Issues of privacy, ownership, and of further muddying historical truth in the already precariously muddled public perception–all were raised, and all, as questions in themselves, have validity. I do suspect though, that had Mr. Smallwood passed away one hundred years ago instead of a scant seven (December 1991) they would never have been posed. After all, Margaret Atwood did it with Alias Grace and emerged unscathed.
How big a role Mr. Smallwood’s contemporaneousness played in the controversy is, ultimately, irrelevant however, for all criticisms are reduced to carping pettiness by the story itself. Mr. Johnston has written a truly wonderful book. A book, that, to quote (with complete agreement) Toronto Star reviewer Philip Marchand, “will make a permanent mark on our literature.”
Two unforgettable characters, the entirely factual Joey Smallwood, and the entirely fictional Sheilagh Fielding provide separate narrative voices in the story. Their fates become inextricably entwined from the day they meet at Bishop Feild (a private school Smallwood briefly attended, compliments of his uncle) and he betters her in a skirmish of wits. From that point on, her character shadows his, providing counterbalance to his bluster, perspective to his obsessiveness, and the focus for a quasi-romantic mystery which develops in counterpoint to the political narrative.
Simultaneously self-promoting and self-deprecating, selfless and selfish, the unsinkable Joe Smallwood escorts the reader through a lively rendition of his life. Born on Christmas Eve, 1900 into “the scruff,” of Newfoundland society, Smallwood is possessed by the idea that he must become great to avoid being nothing. Not only must he achieve greatness, he must, he feels, find a path to greatness for all Newfoundlanders commensurate with the greatness of the land itself. Easier said than done for the diminutive, impoverished son of an alcoholic father, who was once awarded a mark of forty-five out of five hundred for character by a vindictive head master at Bishop Feild. (“If you think of God as five hundred,” says his mother, helpfully, “then forty-five is not so bad.”)
After a nearly unbroken string of disastrous schemes and political misadventures which extend into his forties, Smallwood does find himself uniquely situated, in 1949, to lead his country (Newfoundland was a country then) into Canadian confederation and thus fulfill his duty to himself and Newfoundland.
Not being particularly familiar with the details of Joey Smallwood’s career, I had assumed, based on the premise that no real life could have possibly been so entertaining, that many of the incidents recounted were fictional. I was astounded to learn, after some preliminary research for this review, that, by and large (except where Fielding is concerned) the skeleton of the story is factual, including the mark of forty-five for character!
Which brings us to Fielding. Words fail me (well, nearly). Words never fail Fielding. When asked to commit to a political viewpoint, she once retorted, “I’m a phlegmatist.”
Although her personal journals reveal a kind and thoughtful soul, her public writing is something quite different. To paraphrase a Smallwood comment in the story, “I have never in my life heard such a steady stream of irony.” Johnston turns in a literary tour-de-force as the creator of this most complicated creature–a tragic, lonely, witty, sarcastic, alcoholic, broken-hearted idealist. I doubt that her sustained output of knife-edge irony (in conversation, editorial articles, and her own hilariously satirical version of Newfoundland’s history) will soon be equaled in Canadian fiction.
Appreciation of the book’s humour, in all it many forms should not distract from the beauty and power of the story, which benefits from (amongst other things) Mr. Johnston’s uncanny ability to capture, with great clarity, the nuances of our perceptions. For example, Joe, describing the intellectual growth which accompanied his first trip away from Newfoundland, says, “ It was as though the definitions of all the words in my vocabulary were expanding at once.”
Re-experiencing the slightly ominous, overwhelming quality of a Newfoundland night, after a stint in New York, he comments: “This darkness was like a prevailing wind. It came, self-propelled, across the ocean on some mission of obliteration not primarily concerning us.”
Nominated for the Giller Prize, the Leacock Medal and Governor General, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams was inexplicably denied a major Canadian literary award this year. My advice? Read it anyway.