The Colony of Unrequited Dreams

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9780385495424: The Colony of Unrequited Dreams

"The Colony of Unrequited Dreams" is Newfoundland--that vast, haunting near-continent upon which the two lovers and adversaries of this miraculously inventive novel pursue their ambitions.

Joey Smallwood, sprung from almost Dickensian privation, is a scholarship boy at a private school, where his ready wit bests the formidably tart-tongued Sheilagh Fielding. Their dual fates become forever linked by an anonymous letter to a local paper critical of the school--a letter whose mysterious authorship will weigh heavily on their lives.

Driven by socialist dreams and political desire, Smallwood will walk a railroad line the breadth of Newfoundland in a journey of astonishing power and beauty, to unionize the workers--and make his name. Fielding, now a popular newspaper columnist, provides--in her journalism, her diaries, and her bleakly hilarious "Condensed History of Newfoundland"--a satirical and eloquent counternarrative to Smallwood's story.

As the decades pass and Smallwood's rise converges with Newfoundland's emerging autonomy, these two vexed characters must confront their own frailties and secrets--and their mutual (if doomed) love.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams combines erudition, unflagging narrative brio, and emotional depth in a manner reminiscent of the best of Robertson Davies and John Irving. Set in a landscape already made familiar to American readers by Annie Proulx and Howard Norman, it establishes Wayne Johnston as a novelist who is as profound as he is funny, with an unerringly ironic sense of the intersection where private lives and history collide.

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Review:

In 1949, Joseph Smallwood became the first premier of the newly federated Canadian province of Newfoundland. Predictably, and almost immediately, his name retreated to the footnotes of history. And yet, as Wayne Johnston makes plain in his epic and affectionate fifth novel, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Smallwood's life was endearingly emblematic, an instance of an extraordinary man emerging at a propitious moment. The particular charm of Johnston's book, however, lies not merely in unveiling a career that so seamlessly coincided with the burgeoning self-consciousness of Newfoundland itself, but in exposing a simple truth--namely, that history is no more than the accretion of lived lives.

Born into debilitating poverty, Smallwood is sustained by a bottomless faith in his own industry. His unabashed ambition is to "rise not from rags to riches, but from obscurity to world renown." To this end, he undertakes tasks both sublime and baffling--walking 700 miles along a Newfoundland railroad line in a self-martyring union drive; narrating a homespun radio spot; and endlessly irritating and ingratiating himself with the Newfoundland political machine. His opaque and constant incitement is an unconsummated love for his childhood friend, Sheilagh Fielding. Headstrong and dissolute, she weaves in and out of Smallwood's life like a salaried goad, alternately frustrating and illuminating his ambitions. Smallwood is harried as well by Newfoundland's subtle gravity, a sense that he can never escape the tug of his native land, since his only certainty is the island itself--that "massive assertion of land, sea's end, the outer limit of all the water in the world, a great, looming, sky-obliterating chunk of rock."

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams bogs down after a time in its detailing of Smallwood's many political intrigues and in the lingering matter of a mysterious letter supposedly written by Fielding. However, when he speculates on the secret motives of his peers, or when he reveals his own hyperbolic fantasies and grandiose hopes--matters no one would ever confess aloud--the novel is both apt and amiable. Best of all is to watch Smallwood's inevitable progress toward a practical cynicism. It seems nothing less than miraculous that his countless disappointments pave the way for his ascension, that his private travails ultimately align with the land he loves. This is history resuscitated. --Ben Guterson

From the Back Cover:

Wayne Johnston’s fictional autobiography of Joey Smallwood, the cunning politician who all but dragged Newfoundland into Canada, is a combination of mystery and love story. Energetically narrated by Newfoundland actor Boyd Norman, this audio edition tells the epic story of Smallwood’s rise from poverty and obscurity to the office of Newfoundland’s first premier. At the heart of Johnston’s masterful novel, however, is Smallwood’s life-long relationship with Sheilagh Fielding, an acerbic, hard-drinking journalist whom he first meets when he is a struggling scholarship student at a St. John’s boarding school. The two are bound together by a childhood secret and an unfulfilled passion for one another.

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