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The Colony Of Unrequited Dreams [Paperback]

Wayne Johnston
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Sept. 7 1999
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.”

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Product Description

From Amazon

In The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Wayne Johnston transforms the story of longtime Newfoundland premier Joey Smallwood into a vastly inventive drama of ambition, history, and landscape, aided by the entirely fictional creation of Sheilagh Fielding: unconsummated love interest, eccentric journalist, and a character so vivid and singular that she even overshadows Smallwood himself, one of the true originals of Canadian history.

From Publishers Weekly

"As lived our fathers, we live not,/Where once they knelt, we stand./With neither God nor King to guard our lot, We'll guard thee, Newfoundland": so rings the resigned, ironic patriotism practiced by the inhabitants of the bitter-cold northerly territory in Johnston's (Human Amusements) grand and operatic novel, a bestseller and literary prize nominee in Canada. Treating the history of Newfoundland as a bad jokeAwhose punch line is finally delivered on April 1, 1949, when the in-limbo British territory joins in confederation with CanadaAJohnston's most compelling character (in a book that teems with eccentrics, drunks, swindlers and snobs), Sheilagh Fielding, writes a condensed version of the classic History of Newfoundland. The terse and mordant chapters of this masterwork, to which she devotes all her energies (when not scribbling furiously in her epistolary diary or eking out the columns of her daily political satire, "Field Day") are interleaved in the narrative to great effect. The bulk of the book comprises the autobiographical musings of historical figure Joe Smallwood, whose rise through local socialist activism to international political eminence culminates in his orchestration of the treaty with Canada. It is dwarf-sized Smallwood's tireless ambition, as well as his crippling romantic insecurity, that keep him forever at arm's length from his childhood love and best friend Fielding. In their hometown of St. John's, in Manhattan's downtown tenements, in the desolate railroad man's cabin where Fielding holes up with a typewriter and a bottle of Scotch, Smallwood and Fielding torment and intrigue one another, each harboring the shame and fury of a secret from their school days that has gone unresolved. In a book of this magnitude and inventivenessAsome of Fielding's quips are hilarious, and Johnston proves himself cunning at manipulating and animating historical factAit is perhaps the device of this lifelong secret that most tests the reader's faith: that full disclosure resolves all the complicated mysteries of this book is slightly disappointing. Nonetheless, the variety provided by Fielding's writings is delightful, and this brilliantly clever evocation of a slice of Canadian history establishes Johnston as a writer of vast abilities and appeal. BOMC and QPB selections; author tour. (July) FYI: Johnston's comic novel, The Divine Ryans (not published in the U.S.), will be released by Anchor in August to coincide with the film version, starring Pete Postlethwaite.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Solid, engrossing, interesting Jan. 20 2001
Format:Paperback
Describing this novel will almost certainly minimize its tremendous power. A fictionalized first person of a key Newfoundlander's life, coupled with intercalary chapters which are a satiric history of Newfoundland, sounds like one of those heavy tomes worthy of a Canadian TV mini-series rather than a good evening's read. But this book is a powerful, solid read, the kind of read one imagines cannot be obtained in a modern novel. Smallwood, Newfoundland's first premier upon its confederation with Canada, is portrayed in a variety of situations throughout a long life, some historical and some fictional. But this novel does not bear the cobwebs of the "fictional history" genre. Instead, the book's two major characters--Smallwood and Sheilagh Fielding--seem as real as life, flawed and fascinating.
This book is vibrant and alive, straightforward, believable,and wholly warm and human. The parts of the book based on actual history are much more fantastic than the parts of the book which are pure fiction. The book explores some interesting ideas--the twin pursuit of compassion and ambition, the persistence of love over time, and the effects on the protagonists of constant self re-invention. The reader comes away with a sense of place as to Newfoundland, with that feeling of having "known" the characters,and with an abiding respect for a gifted novelist. This is one of the truly great novels I've read.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very, very good. Sept. 17 2000
Format:Paperback
Perhaps I'm a little bit biased towards this novelization of the life of Joey Smallwood. No, I'm not from Newfoundland. No, I'm not a historical fiction buff. No, my name's not Joey.
But as I read along, a sneaking suspicion entered my mind. I did a little bit a family research, and it turns out that I am distantly related to the character of Prowse, who could be loosely described as Smallwood's arch-enemy. Admittedly, it is a tenuous relation (three generations by marriage), but still, very cool. And of course, it helps that the novel is one of astonishing quality.
COLONY tells of the slow rise of Joey Smallwood, from his very humble beginnings to his eventual election as Newfoundland's first premier. Now, I don't know anything about the history of Newfoundland. I don't believe the book is meant to be a technically accurate representation of Smallwood's life. This is not a biography.
What COLONY is, is a vastly entertaining look at the twists and turns that can occur in the life of one man. As in John Irving's best novels ( I kept thinking of THE CIDER HOUSE RULES as I read along), COLONY is an epic view of a tiny subject. As Smallwood's life progresses, the story becomes more and more enriched with characters and themes and regrets and promises. What Smallwood does with his life is miraculous, and sometimes awe-inspiring. I don't mean to imply that Smallwood is a saint. But his flaws and delusions only serve to heighten his triumphs and failures.
As I said, I don't know how much of COLONY is factually true. Did he have an ongoing unrequited love affair with his childhood friend and nemesis Fielding? Are the motivations behind his actions accurate? In the end, it doesn't matter. This isn't meant to be a treatise on the political background of a premier. This is a story, and a damned fine one. And it is obvious after reading it why, for all his mistakes, Joey Smallwood is a widely beloved figure in Newfoundland.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A REQUITED READ Feb. 15 2002
By Cajun
Format:Paperback
I read this novel 40 books ago. I still think about it. Wayne Johnston pulled me right into his wild, stark, exotic Newfoundland, where I found two unique characters with an ever tense and often wacky relationship. Johnston's writing is clean and crisp and never conceited. His landscape is frozen and beautiful. And his humor is dead-on. While the well-done SHIPPING NEWS gets all the Newfoundland publicity, that book doesn't quite measure up to this masterpiece. For fiction at its finest, visit A COLONY OF UNREQUITED DREAMS.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A REQUITED READ Feb. 15 2002
By Cajun
Format:Paperback
I read this novel 40 books ago. I still think about it. Wayne Johnston pulled me right into his wild, stark, exotic Newfoundland, where I found two unique characters with an ever tense and often wacky relationship. Johnston's writing is clean and crisp and never conceited. His landscape is frozen and beautiful. And his humor is dead-on. While the well-done SHIPPING NEWS gets all the Newfoundland publicity, that book doesn't quite measure up to this masterpiece. For fiction at its finest, visit A COLONY OF UNREQUITED DREAMS.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Engrossing April 22 2004
Format:Paperback
As much as I love reading, I often get bored of books whose writers use unnessesary language just to satisfy thier own vanity. This is not one of those books. The imagery and personification of the characters is spot on without being pretentious. I found myself angry at the characters at times, which is only a testiment to Wayne Jonston's ability to involve the reader throughout the narrative. I was fancinated by the stark images of Newfoundland's rough landscape and history. Having never visited Newfoundland, I feel a first hand experience of the place which is similar in feeling to my experience of India during Rohinton Mistry's "A Fine Balance". Overall, a very enjoyable read.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Poor Old Joey May 16 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
A man who grew too big ,too fast.
He went from being a socialist to being a demigod who did not fear retribution for his acts of vengeance .
A woman I knew in 1949 could not be persuaded that Joey did not pay her Baby Bonus out of his own funds.
Someone once said that the greatest orators of all time were Our Lord Jesus, Hitler , and Joey.
Amen to that.
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