Genre: Biographical Fiction, Political Fiction, Historical Fiction, Bildungsroman
Publication Year: 1998
Edition Read: 1999 Vintage Canada paperback edition
Major Accolades: Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Prize, 1998; Canadian Authors Association Award for Fiction, 1999; shortlisted for Giller Prize and Governor-General’s Award for Fiction, 1998; Canada Reads selection, 2003.
Newfoundland and Labrador is an interesting the province – the last to join Confederation, one of the most distinct cultures in English Canada, and one of the most remote provinces in Canada. I have family connections to the province; my grandfather was born in the early 1920s and as such was a member of that last generation of Newfoundlanders that experienced life in both an independent and confederated Newfoundland. I remember as a youngster him showing me his Newfoundland memorabilia: coins and bills from the Dominion, postage stamps, and the medals he received for serving in the Newfoundland company of the Empire forces during World War II. Even though he moved to Nova Scotia in the late ‘40s and married a New Brunswick francophone in the early ‘50s, many of the old traditions of rural pre-WWII Newfoundland survived in his home until his death in 2007. Even though it is one of the few provinces I have never visited, I have a great affinity for Newfoundland.
Joey Smallwood is a name that is synonymous with Newfoundland. He dubbed himself the “Last Father of Confederation” and once elected premier he ruled with an authoritarian streak that would make Donald Trump proud for over two decades. Whatever one may think of Smallwood, is it indisputable that you cannot understand that period of the province’s history without understanding him. With that in mind, you must give kudos to Wayne Johnston and the guts it must have taken to even contemplate the idea of writing a sweeping epic with Joey Smallwood as the main character (and narrated from his first-person point-of-view nonetheless).
Epic in its proportions, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is one of the most satisfying books I have read in a while. It combines politics, romance, elements of the bildungsroman, and as much Newfoundland culture as you can handle. The character of Smallwood and his true-love/archenemy Sheilagh Fielding are about as well developed as characters can be in a work of fiction, and that is the true power of this book. As a reader, you spend decades with Smallwood and Fielding – you mourn their failures and celebrate their triumphs. Equally as impressive as Johnston’s character development is his ability to shift narrative point-of-view and exposition style. At regular points throughout the book, Smallwood’s narration is injected with snippets of book chapters, journal entries, and newspaper columns written by Fielding. Johnston managed to create a very distinctive first-person viewpoint in these pieces and they serve a fantastic contrasting or context setting device.
This novel was featured on Canada Reads in 2003. It was defended by Justin Trudeau, long before he got into politics; Trudeau ended voting against Colony in the final round to crown Next Episode as the winner and to this day he remains the only panelist in the 15 years of the competition to vote against his or her own book. One of the primary criticisms of the novel on that show, as well as on some other amateur reviews I’ve read, is that from a biographical standpoint, Johnston takes some severe liberties with Smallwood’s story. It is true, he does – for instance, Smallwood was not on the SS Newfoundland during the infamous sealing disaster and, from a larger perspective, Fielding was not a real person. My response is… who cares? I would refer anyone who criticizes the book on this basis to the second paragraph above: “Joey Smallwood is a name that is synonymous with Newfoundland.” While the central character of The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is Joey Smallwood, I read this book as the story of Newfoundland during the formative years of 1900-1949 first, and as a story of Joey Smallwood second.
This is a long and engrossing book that should be read slow. It needs to be savored and chewed on slowly or else you risk just pounding through the magic (although I feel this is the case with all books and am a subscriber to the school of slow reading). The Colony of Unrequited Dreams has aged very well in the twenty years since it was published.