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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams

Reviewed: June 13, 2003
By: Wayne Johnston
Publisher: Vintage Canada
562 Pages, $22.00

When you read this sort of novel, which occupies the terrain somewhere between biography and fiction, you have to wonder why the writer didn’t simply chose to do one or the other. While it may be true that the character of Joey Smallwood seems, indeed, to be something out of a Dickensian novel, yet he was a real person. However much he became his own caricature in later life, he had a real life. I’m uncomfortable with the degree to which fictionalizing it makes it too easy to suggest motives and drives which may or may not have been in the man himself.

When you couple that with the fact that some very powerful fictional characters have been inserted into the life under consideration, the net effect is that of having created one of those television docudramas, which do not hesitate to mix fact and fiction in order punch up the story.

In other words, approach The Colony of Unrequited Dreams with reservations. Know what you’re getting into, because the one undisputable fact is that it’s an excellent novel. It will suck you in and hold your attention from first to last.

Warnings aside, this fictional life of Smallwood is a masterful piece of work. Its six segments chronicle the life and hard times of the man who would become our last befuddled Father of Confederation. Most of the narrative is in Joey’s own words, taking us from his life in the poor districts of Saint John’s to his eventual triumph as Premier of the province.

His story is set within the framework of Newfoundland’s history, represented here by 32 short chapters from Fielding’s Condensed History of Newfoundland. This imaginary spoof is the product of Sheilagh Fielding, Johnston’s great fictional creation in this book. Fielding and Smallwood meet while they are attending adjacent private schools in their youth. They are instant antagonists and remain so all their lives, though it is also true that they yearn for each other and never really find satisfaction with other people.

They are mates in politics and both become journalists in later life. Both live lives that are a constant quest after goals they have only partially defined. We learn more of Fielding’s version of things through a journal that she keeps for most of her life, written as a series of letters to people who will never get to see them. Fielding, an unrequited mother, chronic alcoholic and keen social observer, provides a counterweight to Smallwood’s vaguely focussed search for personal justification and social justice.

I said back at the beginning that this book made me think of Charles Dickens. It’s very true. While most of the story takes place in the 20th century, it all feels very 19th, as if the Newfoundland under discussion existed in some sort of a time warp. Joey’s life on the Brow, his time in the boy’s school, his dalliance with socialist politics and his attempts to find respectability within the established political parties of his youth all have that David Copperfield sort of touch to them, as of a story which is both serious and silly at the same time.

The relationship between Smallwood and Fielding is the most important one in the book, far surpassing anything happening in Joey’s own family. His wife and children are hardly mentioned. Even though he is never physically unfaithful to to his spouse, the odd love-hate relationship with Fielding is never resolved during all the time covered in the story.

The latter part of the book is probably the most disappointing. Joey narrates tales of the foolish things he did as premier as if he had somehow been unable to stop himself from getting flim-flammed and making all those bad deals. The earlier parts of the book, when there was a struggle, when other people were being the fools, are the more interesting parts of the story. It’s as if neither the author nor his characters could stand to linger in that part of history where Joey made his biggest mistakes.

The ending of the novel is odd. First there is a 1989 letter from Fielding to Smallwood, written some 30 years after his last segment, and 18 years after he lost power. She writes to Smallwood the stroke victim, deprived of language and waiting to move on. Then we get a Field Day column that she had written 30 years earlier, the story of the last Beothuk Indian mixed up with her memories of the 1949 referendum campaign.

It’s an ending that asks more questions than it answers, and makes it less surprising than you might think that the current Premier, Grimes, is musing about renegotiating the confederation deal. There were dreams leading up to that event, and many of them are as unrequited as Fielding’s love life.

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