Publisher: Canada: Knopf, 1998
U.S: Doubleday 1999
Britain: Anchor Books 1999
Format: Trade Paperback, 608 pgs.
On Sale Date: September 1999
#1 best seller in Canada, and a best seller in the US, Austrailia and the Netherlands.
Canadian Authors' Association Best Novel 1998.
New York Times Notable Books 1998.
Thomas Raddall/Atlantic Fiction Award 1998/9.
Los Angeles Times Book of the Year.
New York Public Libraries Best Book Award, 1999.
Book of the Month Club selection.
Canada Reads, Readers Choice Award
Shortlisted for the Mann/Booker Prize, the Giller Prize and the Governor General's Award for fiction.
Made The 150 Great Canadian Books list.
Read this New York Times review.
And this review by The Globe and Mail.
The Colony Of Unrequited Dreams
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."
Also available in Germany as Die Kolonie der unerfulten Traume (Hoffman and Campe 1999)
Available in the Netherlands as De kolonie van onvervulde dromen (de Geus 1999)
Available in China as The Colony of Unrequieted dreams (Chongqing Publishing House 2005)
"A brilliant and bravura literary performance...An anti-epic about Newfoundland: its loss of nation status, its first Premier and, most of all, its harsh, desolate landscape...mesmerizing" -- The New York Times
"Ambitious and sweeping...a glowing fiction threaded through with the story of the island itself. As with The Shipping News, the unforgiving landscape is wonderfully captured."
-- The Times
"As beautiful and imaginative as writing gets these days."
-- The Globe and Mail
"One of the year's best novels: serious and funny, uncompromisingly original yet accessible; it makes us feel at home in a place about as different from here as it could be."
-- Los Angeles Times
"My big fiction treat this year."
-- Anne-Marie MacDonald
"A spellbinding, must-read tale..Johnston's authentic sense of place, history and romance are woven into a magical tapestry."
-- Winnipeg Free Press
"With the lyricism of a lost lover, Johnston presents an awe-inspiringly barren and relentless landscape. [His] skill in marrying the political and historical with the personal...is remarkable."
-- New Statesman (UK)
"The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is an indispensable masterpiece. It reshapes and animates history with luminous verisimilitude. Every page of Wayne Johnston's stunning novel displays the highest regard for his reader's intelligence and for the art of writing itself...Mr. Johnston has genius in him, and I think haunting, unmitigated, uncanny vision and grace."
-- Howard Norman
"This splendid and entertaining novel is both a version of David Copperfield transported to twentieth-century Newfoundland and an evocation of vanished ways of lift in a place caught in tumultuous political changes. Rich and complex, it offers Dickensian pleasures."
-- Andrea Barrett
"A novel of cavernous complexity that nevertheless does not overwhelm the reader, who can repose in pure narrative".
-- Luc Sante, New York Times Book Review
"Wayne Johnston is a brilliant and accomplished writer, and his Newfoundland - boots and boats, rough politics and rough country, history and journalism - during the wild Smallwood years is vivid and sharp."
-- Annie Proulx
"Grand and operatic...this brilliantly clever evocation of a slice of Canadian history establishes Johnston as a writer of vast abilities and appeal."
-- Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Hypnotic...A mighty accomplishment: Here's a novel that is as much a tale of two people as it is a history of the harsh, odd and ultimately fascinating land from which they hail. There is indeed more to Newfoundland than salt cod and tundra, and Johnston brings it all to life."
-- Chris Bohjalian, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
"A long, impassioned, absorbing novel...bravura storytelling."
-- Dennis Drabelle, Washington Post Book World
"A capacious, old-fashioned summer hammock of a book - the kind you fall into, enchanted, and hate to leave...I wouldn't have missed the trip for anything."
-- Dan Cryer, Newday
"A hymn to the human spirit...quite stunning."
"A classic historical novel...deeply felt and powerfully imagined [that] will make a permanent mark on our literature."
-- The Toronto Star, Choice for Best Book of 1998