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The Navigator of New York [Paperback]

Wayne Johnston
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Sept. 9 2003
Wayne Johnston’s breakthrough epic novel The Colony of Unrequited Dreams was published in several countries and given high praise from the critics. It earned him nominations for the highest fiction prizes in Canada and was a national bestseller. His American editor said he hadn’t found such an exciting author since he discovered Don DeLillo. Johnston, who has been writing fiction for two decades, launched his next and sixth novel across the English-speaking world to great anticipation.

The Navigator of New York is set against the background of the tumultuous rivalry between Lieutenant Peary and Dr. Cook to get to the North Pole at the beginning of the 20th century. It is also the story of a young man’s quest for his origins, from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to the bustling streets of New York, and the remotest regions of the Arctic.

Devlin Stead’s father, an Arctic explorer, stops returning home at the end of his voyages and announces he is moving to New York, as “New York is to explorers what Paris is to artists”; eventually he is declared missing from an expedition. His mother meets an untimely death by drowning shortly after. Young Devlin, who barely remembers either of them, lives contently in the care of his affectionate aunt and indifferent uncle, until taunts from a bullying fellow schoolboy reveal dark truths underlying the bare facts he knows about his family. A rhyme circulated around St. John’s further isolates Devlin, always seen as an odd child who had inherited his parents’ madness and would likely meet a similar fate.

Devlin, who has always learned about his father through newspaper reports, now finds other people’s accounts of his parents are continually altering his view of his parents. Then strange secret letters start to arrive, exciting his imagination with the unanticipated notion that his life might contain the possibility of adventure. Nothing is what it once seemed. Suddenly a chance to take his own place in the world is offered, giving him courage and a newfound zest for discovery. “It was life as I would live it unless I went exploring that I dreaded.”

Caught up in the mystery of who his parents really were, and anxious to leave behind the image of ‘the Stead boy’, at the age of twenty Devlin sails, carrying only a doctor’s bag, to a New York that is bursting with frenzied energy and about to become the capital city of the globe; where every day inventors file for new patents and three thousand new strangers enter the city, a city that already looks ancient although taller buildings are constructed constantly. There he will become protégé to Dr. Cook, who is restlessly preparing for his next expedition, be introduced into the society that makes such ventures possible, and eventually accompany Cook on his epic race to reach the Pole before the arch-rival Peary. This trip will plunge Devlin into worldwide controversy -- and decide his fate.

Wayne Johnston has harnessed the scope, energy and inventiveness of the nineteenth century novel and encapsulated it in the haunting and eloquent voice of his hero. His descriptions of place, whether of the frozen Arctic wastes or the superabundant and teeming New York, have extraordinary physicality and conviction, recreating a time when the wide world seemed to be there for the taking. An extraordinary achievement that seamlessly weaves fact and fabrication, it continues the masterful reinvention of the historical novel Wayne Johnston began with The Colony of Unrequited Dreams.

From the Hardcover edition.

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  • Prizes and Awards: Giller Prize Shortlist 2002

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From Publishers Weekly

The race to get to the North Pole frames a young explorer's effort to unearth his family history in Johnston's latest, a captivating narrative that delves into both the noble and the seedier aspects of the human need to discover and explore. Devlin Stead is the orphaned protagonist raised by his aunt and uncle in Newfoundland after his physician father dies in a polar expedition under the aegis of Robert Edwin Peary and Dr. Frederick Cook. The boy's sheltered existence is shattered when he receives a series of letters from Cook that reveal the explorer-who had committed an indiscretion with Devlin's mother-to be the boy's real father. Cook invites Devlin to New York, where he takes him under his wing and makes him his assistant. Their strange relationship culminates when father and son journey to Greenland to rescue the stubborn Peary, who has become stranded while trying to reach the pole and refuses to give up and return. Devlin then becomes deeply involved in Cook's effort to beat Peary to the pole, participating in Cook's infamous 1908 attempt that was decried as a hoax. Johnston (The Colony of Unrequited Dreams; Baltimore's Mansion, etc.) occasionally gets overly caught up in the details of Devlin's murky personal history yet delivers a satisfying character study, and the polar explorations generate considerable narrative tension when the family subplot flattens out. Johnston's ability to illuminate historical settings and situations continues to grow with each book, and this powerful effort is his best to date.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Library Journal

As with Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Johnston draws on historical events to build his new novel. A fierce duel was waged during the years 1907-09 between Adm. Robert Peary and Dr. Frederick Cook, each claiming to have been the first to reach the North Pole. Against the backdrop of this dispute, Johnston tells the story of a lonely Newfoundland boy named Devlin Stead who grows up under a shadow because his parents reputedly committed suicide. As Devlin observes, "I could think of no greater thing than to be an explorer, the epitome of my most cherished belief, which was that a man's fate was not determined by the past." In fact, Devlin's fate is much in thrall to the past. The thrill of polar exploration, the beauty and terror of glaciers, and the horror of the long Arctic nights are splendidly evoked. The secrets of Devlin's parents are slowly revealed, adding intrigue and suspense to the last two-thirds of the book. For all collections of serious fiction.
Judith Kicinski, Sarah Lawrence Coll. Lib., Bronxville, NY
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Dopey slow moving and self-indulgent Nov. 17 2011
I had really high hopes for this book because it had so many interesting ingredients: Frederick Cook, the great impostor, Peary the arctic explorer whose claim to the North Pole is still being debated, Newfoundlanders in New York... as it turns out, much of the book consists of prose that might have come from a teenage girl's diary. The first half of the book is a long tedious build-up to not much happening in the second book. We do meet Peary and his wife in some unlikely historical fiction and that's about it.

Give the book a miss and either read some literature or some junk. This book is junk pretending to be literature.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent novel Dec 17 2002
very well written and researched story. the relationship that develops between devlin stead (the protaganist) and his benefactor Dr. cook is unique and fascinating. sadly, i think some reviewers on this site have missed the point; the sections of the book devoted to polar exploration are compelling, but they are framework for a more compelling story about relationships. If you enjoy this sort of story i highly recommend his earlier memoir baltimore's mansion.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Historical Fiction April 5 2008
By MacFly
The Navigator of New York, by Wayne Johnston, is a wonderful piece of Canadian literature. This thick volume is a work of fiction but focuses on the actual event of the race to be the first person to reach the North Pole. Johnston's writing is rich and detailed as he unravels a complex and compelling story for the reader. This is the third book I have read by this author and I have truly enjoyed each one of them. They are substantial books - they have lots of pages - but are well worth the investment of time for the reader. This novel has twists and turns that continue to catch the reader off guard - while the twists are surprising, they are completely believable. Anyone who wants to read truly great Canadian writing should investigate this author.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Another Canadian disappointment Nov. 7 2003
I chose to read this book based on it's wonderful reviews. Perhaps my expectations were a bit too high. While I enjoyed the exploration adventure of the story, the poorly veiled "intrigue" did nothing for me. Each time the story was becoming unbearably boring, new, previously unrevealed information would be unveiled by the superficial Dr. Cook. I made myself finish this book, but was extremely disappointed by the ending, which after a long struggle through, culminated in about 20 pages. Good thing I got this for free....
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