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.