Cover image for The colony of unrequited dreams
The colony of unrequited dreams
Johnston, Wayne.
Personal Author:
First edition in the U.S.A.
Publication Information:
New York : Doubleday, 1998.
Physical Description:
562 pages : maps ; 25 cm
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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks
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"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.

Author Notes

Wayne Johnston was born in Goulds, Newfoundland in 1958. He graduated with a B.A. in English from Memorial University of Newfoundland in 1978. He worked from 1978-1981 as a newspaper reporter with the St. John's Daily News. In 1981, he decided to write fiction full-time. In 1983, he graduated with an M.A. in creative writing from the University of New Brunswick. His first book, The Story of Bobby O'Malley, won the W.H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award in 1985. His other works include The Divine Ryans, which won the 1991 Thomas Head Raddall Award and was adapted into a movie, Baltimore's Mansion, which won the Charles Taylor Prize, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, The Navigator of New York, and The Custodian of Paradise.

(Bowker Author Biography) Wayne Johnston was born and raised in Newfoundland and now lives in Toronto.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The Colony, already a best-seller in Canada, is the fictional biography of Joe Smallwood, one of Newfoundland's most controversial political figures, and focuses on his early years and arduous rise to power: union organizer, newspaperman, socialist turned liberal, and Newfoundland's first premier after confederation with Canada in 1949. Writing from Smallwood's perspective, Johnston voices a deep longing on the part of the scrappy and mostly hapless schemer to do something historically significant, "commensurate with the greatness of the land itself." Intensely powerful passages of amazing sensitivity paint another side of Smallwood, that of a caring champion of poor people in a land of unrelenting hardship. Always in perfect counterpoint are the views of Smallwood's lifelong friend, Sheilagh Fielding, as set forth in her acerbic newspaper columns, personal journals, and irreverently entertaining Condensed History of Newfoundland. The paths of Smallwood and Fielding cross early and often during their lives, linking them in youthful scandal, ongoing intrigue, and a tender but stilted affection. Sweeping historical drama, hilarious satire, mystery--this story is big both in length and in scope. --Grace Fill

Publisher's Weekly Review

"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 jokeÄwhose punch line is finally delivered on April 1, 1949, when the in-limbo British territory joins in confederation with CanadaÄJohnston'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 inventivenessÄsome of Fielding's quips are hilarious, and Johnston proves himself cunning at manipulating and animating historical factÄit 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. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Angela's Ashes meets Moby Dick meets All the King's Men! Famed and fˆted in Canada, this fictional biography of Joe Smallwood, Liberal first premier of Britain's former colony of Newfoundland, and his longtime (fictional) love, Shelagh Fielding, is sure to set off sparks here. Smallwood governed for 23 years; the story of how he achieved his elevated position after a childhood of poverty and want, and what he surrendered along the way, is mesmerizing. The central scenes of class warfare are preceded and followed by a beautiful and horrifying set piece about a sealing voyage. Joe's story is interspersed with hilarious excerpts from the Condensed History of Newfoundland by Shelagh Fielding, easily one of the more original characters in fiction. Carrying a "purely ornamental" cane since girlhood, almost constantly sipping from a flask of Scotch, she is a TB victim, a political writer with no visible principles, and a railroad worker who won't join a union to keep her jobÄand ends up being fascinating whatever she does. Johnston's first novel to be published here, this is recommended for all fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/1/99.]ÄJudith Kicinski, Sarah Lawrence Coll. Lib., Bronxville, NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



The Docks I begged my way off the court beat after a few months. I convinced the publisher of the Telegram, who each year purchased several berths on the S.S. Newfoundland and sold them to sealers in exchange for a percentage of their share, to let me have a berth so that I could write about what life was like on board a sealing ship. My publisher worked out an arrangement with the Newfoundland 's captain, Westbury Kean, whereby I would file stories every day using the ship's telegrapher. Kean, saying he had no intention of being held responsible for anything that might happen to a boy who had never been off dry land in his life, said that I would not be allowed to go out on the ice but could watch the hunt from on board through binoculars. And he would read each day's story and convey it in person to the telegrapher to make sure nothing was published that reflected badly on him or his crew. My family came out to see me off and to witness the annual blessing of the sealing fleet by clergy of all denominations. Miss Garrigus was the only woman among them. As the clergy, their voices magnified by megaphones, prayed God to safeguard the officers and crew of the fleet and to reward them for their labour with a bountiful harvest, I stood, imitating the crew, in the rigging of the S.S. Newfoundland, though not as high up as most of them were. There must have been ten thousand people gathered down below, jammed to the water's edge to see the fleet, which filled the harbour. Even with the vessels moored nose in, there was not enough room at dockside for all of them, so the rest had to anchor in midharbour, facing every which way. The pilot boats scooted about trying to organize the fleet's departure. When the blessing concluded, the crowd cheered, and from where we stood we waved our hats. The first of the sealing fleet followed the pilot boats. I watched from the rigging of the Newfoundland as the crowd ran en masse along the apron to join another crowd already gathered on the heights of Signal Hill, where they would watch the fleet make its way towards the ice floes of the northeast coast. As each sealing vessel cleared the Narrows, the noon-day gun on Signal Hill was fired, a blast that echoed back and forth between the north and south side of the city. And also, each of the ships, as it cleared the Narrows, unfurled its expansive sails and was suddenly transformed to white. There came up to me from below, mixed with the old smell of the bilge-water harbour, the new smell of diesel oil from the engines of the biggest steamships. Oil and coal and sail together could barely move these boats now when they were empty of everything but men and boys. They would come back weighted down to the gunners, inching along with their cargoes of seal pelts and whitecoats. At an order from Captain Kean to hoist the sails, I climbed down from the rigging. The men of the Newfoundland pitched in, straining on the ropes, in some cases jumping and hanging in midair to make a sail unfurl. A light cold rain was falling but there was not much wind. Still, as the sails caught the breeze, the massive boom came swinging round and the men ducked expertly beneath it as a sealer who shouted "Low on deck" pulled me down beside him just in time. I looked up. The great soot-begrimed expanse of canvas flapped loudly overhead, black smoke billowed backwards from the stack below midship and the Newfoundland picked up speed as it bore down on the ice outside the Narrows. The crew was divided into four groups, watches they were called. I was assigned, at my request, to the fourth watch, which I was told rose at four in the morning. I fancied that the daily routine of this watch would most nearly resemble my own. Each watch was assigned a master, who supervised the men on and off the ship. There were fathers and sons, brothers, in-laws, friends, little factions with distinctive accents, in some cases distinctively incomprehensible ones, who talked exclusively among themselves. There were a few "youngsters," young men my age on their first voyage to the ice, eager to prove they could keep up with the older men and incredulous with scorn when they heard of my confinement to the ship. I had been worried how I would be received among the sealers. Most of them did not begrudge me having it "easy," as it seemed to them I did. On the contrary, one of the older men said quite sincerely that it was a credit to me that I had made something of myself. Most regarded me with a kind of shy awe when they heard what I was doing. They could not read or write and had never met someone whom they perceived to be the epitome of reading and writing, a newspaper man. "What did ya write about us today, now?" they asked me the first few days, as we made our way through the ice to the whelping grounds. I would read them what I wrote. "Sher if yer not goin' over de side of 'er," a young fellow from Catalina said, "'ow 're ya gonna know what goes on out on dee ice?" They all laughed when I took out from beneath my pillow my binoculars and scanned the sleeping quarters as I planned to scan the ice each day. The sealers wore thick-soled leather boots, many of which bore the name of Smallwood. These boots were studded with sharp spikes called sparables. They dressed in thick woollen underwear and trousers and put on as many tattered shirts and guernseys as they could, but no overcoats, for they would have been too much of an encumbrance. Each of them had a set of oil clothes but never wore them or even took them when they left the ship unless it looked like it might rain or snow. They tracked out to the whelping grounds with their gaffs held horizontally like staffs in case the ice gave way beneath their feet. From as high up in the rigging as I dared to go, I watched them work, swinging their sharp-pointed gaffs like pickaxes, killing the seals and swiftly pelting them with knives that gleamed like razors in the sun. Beginning a few hundred feet from the ship and extending as far as I could see, the ice was red with blood. They dragged piles of pelts back along the same route each time, so that a single trail of gore led like a road from the blood field to the ship. Most of the carcasses were left behind and only the pelts, the fat-lined fur, brought back to the ship. An ice-field after a day's cull was littered for miles with carcasses, which the next day were set upon by a flock of seagulls and other birds that followed us throughout the voyage. Everywhere there were patches of open water, massive pools of green slush that the sealers crossed, "copied," by jumping without hesitation from one floating ice pan to the next, often having to snag a pan with a gaff to pull it closer to them. The few that fell in and were hauled out hurried back to the ship, their clothing frozen stiff by the time they arrived. My watch, which hit the ice at five in the morning, did not come back to the ship until eight at night. I was not used to a workday near that long, and so I was incredulous when I found out that they had several more hours of work to do on board before they were through. They gathered fresh ice for drinking water, covered the pelts, shifted coal from the hold to the bunkers near the engine room, disposed of the ash from the coal already burnt, tipped great cauldrons of it over the side. At about eleven, they were at last allowed to eat, which they did as swiftly as possible, for there was by this time barely four hours before their watch began again. They cooked seal meat over a barrel that, with its top cut off, formed a kind of spit. The only part of their meal I could not bring myself to eat was "lop scouse," half oatmeal gruel, half seal stew, which they dipped into with rock-hard cakes of "tack" bread, washing the whole vile mixture down with tea. The last thing before bed, they filled the ship's lanterns with seal oil, the smoke from which smelled faintly fish-like and burned my eyes so badly that I lay face down in my pillow, coming up to breathe only when I had to. They crawled into their makeshift wooden bunks and most of them were instantly asleep, which was a blessing, for unlike me they seemed not to notice that our sleeping quarters hung so heavy with coal dust it was barely possible to breathe. The floors, their bunks, their clothing, which they did not waste sleeping time by changing out of, were smeared with blood, fat, soot, ashes, coal dust. While the fourth watch slept, the other watches worked. There was never a time when the ship was idle. The hatch by which the coal was raised up from the hold passed within a few feet of the bunks, which were therefore exposed to the open sky and whatever might be falling from it. By way of another hatch, which also went straight past our bunks but on the other side, seal pelts were dropped down to the second hold, some falling off the chute and straight into the bunks of the sealers, who were so deep in sleep they did not stir and often woke up in the morning covered with the bloody pelts. All night long as I lay in my bunk, coal went up and pelts came down, the coal winch grinding loudly, the seal pelts spattering gore everywhere as they went sliding down the chute. I went three full nights without a wink of sleep and finally decided that I would sleep during the afternoon, when all the watches overlapped, when the fourth watch was most likely to be out of range of my binoculars and when the sleeping quarters were empty and the coal crank and the pelt chute in least use. At night, I lay awake on my bunk, as did some of the sealers who, in spite of their exhaustion or perhaps because of it, could not get to sleep. I think some of them resisted sleep just to experience the luxury of idleness, of doing nothing but lying on their bunks while others worked. They lay with their hands behind their heads as, in the darkness, they puffed reflectively on cigarettes or pipes. They cocked their heads in acknowledgment when they saw me looking at them, but that was all. Despite all the noise, talking was forbidden after midnight. Sometimes the men were on the ice until well into the night, as long as there were enough seals to keep all the watches busy at once. I remember the eerie sight of the sealers setting out across the ice bearing lanterns and torches. On each spotlit patch of ice, one sealer, crouching, held a torch that illuminated a seal over which another sealer stood with gaff upraised. When enough seals had been killed to sustain them, bonfires were built with carcasses doused with seal oil until the air was filled with the smell of roasting seal meat, on which the men covertly feasted while they worked. It was an elemental, soul-disturbing sight, yet I longed to somehow be a part of it, to feel something other than the planks of the S.S. Newfoundland beneath my feet. But Captain Kean was adamant that if I set foot on the ice, I would no longer have the use of his telegrapher. It was just as well, I decided. Even if I were to forsake my purpose for coming and go over the side, I would have no idea what to do and would either soon look foolish or be dead, never having copied in my life. I might wind up on some strand of ice and have to be rescued, or have a gaff thrust in my hand and be unable to kill a seal, to raise the gaff and bring it down with the kind of resolve necessary to the task. Captain Kean was right. Better I confine myself to some pursuit where words alone would do and leave to others, like these men, the deeds that I would write about. I sat on the gunners, one hand on a rope lest I fall over, a puny, bespectacled spectator. And out of the lantern-lit darkness came the sound of the seals, a sound as if a hundred yelping hounds had flushed a fox. I wrote stories that made sealing sound like hard but wholesome work. It was the only kind of story I could get by Captain Kean. But the men didn't seem to mind. They listened intently when I read aloud and afterwards said, "That was very good, sir, very good," as if I had described their life exactly as it was. Or, as I eventually realized, as if they believed the point of writing was to render the world in a manner so benign that to read about it would be a pleasant way to pass the time. Because I was the one writing the stories, and because I was not sure how they would take it, I did not try to set them straight. They were too tired to pay much attention to me anyway, too caught up in the delirium of sealing, the endless hours of work, the noise and confinement of the ship, which provided only the illusion of comfort and asylum, the stark white icescape that, if not for their wooden goggles, would have blinded them. At bedtime, bottles of patent medicine were passed around, but that was all the drinking that was done. You could not drink much and hope to keep up the pace, let alone survive. They appeared to be caught up in some profound reflection as they ate and as they drank their tea, though I doubt they had the energy to sustain a line of thought. I got to know barely a dozen of them by name before the time for learning names was over. But they all knew my name, and they still smiled when their eyes met mine. They liked to have in their midst a kind of mascot layabout from whose life of ease they could derive some vicarious relief. I think they were whelmed into self-absorption in part from being the agents of a slaughter of such magnitude, killing constantly from sun-up past sundown. This was not like fishing, which is what most of them did the rest of the working year, not a mass capture of insensible creatures from another element. The death of each seal was individual, the result of a single act committed by a single person at close quarters, an act in which I was certain they took no joy and which they would happily have forsaken if to do so would not also have meant forsaking the few pennies that stood between their families and starvation. "Over the side," Captain Kean roared when a patch of seals was spotted, and over the gunners with their gaffs the sealers went. I had the feeling it was an order they would no more have refused than they would an order to attack in time of war. The storm came up about noon, seven hours after the men of the fourth watch hit the ice. I saw it coming, a slow encroachment of white so gradual that it blended with the sky and looked like fog. The captain saw it, too, and sent out a party of six men to find the fourth watch. At first there was not much wind, just heavy snow and sleet, ice pellets clicking and gathering like rock-salt on the deck. I watched the six men as they followed the gore-trail out of sight. The storm worsened quickly, as the wind, having changed direction several times, blew with great conviction from the east. An hour later, the search party returned, without the watch. The storm was in so close, I did not see them or hear them until they were a few feet from the rail. The first mate took me below, telling me I could stay with his watch until it was time to bunk down, when I would have to go to my own watch as there were no spare berths in any of the others. I didn't complain that this would mean sleeping alone in quarters that could hold a hundred men, or ask him why he could not send half the men from his watch down to mine. I knew he did not want me to be with the men unless he, or one of the mates in front of whom they would not dare speak their minds, was there as well. We were too far from open water for the wind to cause enough turbulence beneath the ice to rock the ship, but the entire ice-field drifted west until, its far edge having hit the land that was sixty miles away, it could go no farther and it began to press together and to close about the ship, whose wooden hull groaned and creaked and at times snapped loudly as if it were giving way, though as none of the sealers looked too concerned, I pretended not to be. For the first time on the voyage, the hatch was closed and it was warm enough in the ship to wear what you would around the house. The sealers stripped down to their coveralls, drank tea, smoked cigarettes. For the first time, too, the din of the coal crank and the sound of seal pelts chuting down into the hold stopped. There was not much talking done. Everyone knew the fourth watch was not on board. There was speculation, stifled by the first mate, that they might have made it to the Stephano, a ship skippered by Captain Westbury's father, Abe Kean. But this ship had no telegraph, so there was no way to be sure. The first mate declared lights out at nine o'clock. If the storm let up, he said, a search might start as soon as three. I went back to the sleeping quarters of the fourth watch, the door of which the first mate closed emphatically behind me as if to say, "Stay put." I sat on my bunk. At first, all I could hear was the droning of the wind, which at times rose to a shrieking whistle and stayed that way for minutes, a gust so long you forgot it was a gust until it passed. Then I was able to make out the strange noise the rigging ropes made at full vibration, a whirring that would have made it impossible to sleep even had I not been wondering where the men and boys might be. FIELDING'S JOURNAL, MARCH 30, 1916 Dear Smallwood: You may be safer in that ship than I am in this house. You must be warmer, for a ship as drafty as this house would sink in seconds. The electric lights are out. And it's freezing. Because it's not safe to light the fires, all the chimney flues are closed. With each upsurge of the wind, the lantern flickers and the papers on my desk, though weighted down, turn up at the corners. I asked my father if he thought the sealing fleet was safe. He said that as far as he knew, the ice-field extended for a hundred miles from shore, so it was doubtful that any of the ships were riding out the storm in open water. But so many ships have sunk because their hulls were crushed by ice. What if you were forced to abandon ship? You might as well be sheltering from fire. There seems to be no limit to how hard the wind can blow. It's hard to imagine a wind like this with nothing to impede it, no hills, buildings, houses, trees; hard to imagine it screaming along unresisted for a hundred miles or more before it hits your ship. Sealing ships often batten down and wait out storms like this, my father told me. "Why are you suddenly so concerned about the sealing fleet, anyway?" he said. He doesn't know. I hardly know myself. I snapped at him, asked him how any decent person could be so unconcerned. "There's nothing I can do for them," he said. There's nothing I can do either. I will not be bullied into praying. Why would any God raise such a storm? Can it be that you will perish in a storm at sea before the age of twenty? Why should the wind blow so hard if all it wants to do is sink a ship? I can't believe you are out there. I can't believe anyone is out there on the ice tonight. Excerpted from The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.