Author: Wayne Johnston
Genres: Historical Fiction
Read: Feb. 2018
Where to start? This was a very long book that took a lot of motivation to pick up off my shelf, but that I ended up having a lot of opinions about. I was worried that it was going to be really dense, but fortunately, it turned out to be a very well written and engaging book about Newfoundland.
The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is historical fiction about Joey Smallwood, Newfoundland’s first premier who helped to usher Newfoundland into confederation with Canada. He is both a well liked and disliked premier, depending on who you talk to. Johnston definitely takes a lot of liberties with Smallwood’s character in this novel, but the story is still pretty accurately based on his life in terms of what he accomplished.
The story starts with Smallwood as a child in the early 1900’s. His family were shoe salesmen in St. John’s and he lived up on the Brow looking over the Harbour until his uncle decided to pay to send him to Bishop Feild, the prestigious boy’s boarding school of the day. At Bishop Feild, he meets Prowse, grandson of a noted historian, and Fielding, a girl who attends the nearby sister school, Bishop Spencer.
Fielding is the other main character in this story and unlike Smallwood, her character is completely fabricated. Fielding has a cane, walks with a limp, has a wry sense of humour, with sarcasm and irony being her preferred mediums. She’s a bit of an outcast who goes on to work as a reporter for The Telegram, publishing critical articles about all branches and parties of the government. Fielding marches to the beat of her own drum and I really liked her. I loved that she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind and I loved her sense of humour.
This book actually had a lot more humour in it than I was expecting and it had me laughing out loud early in the novel. Below is one of my favourite quotes from the book, which is an argument Smallwood has with his mother, and had me laughing because I also grew up in St. John’s while my parents grew up in rural outport communities. This is pretty much the exact same thing my parents would say to me growing up and the biggest way you could offend my parents would be to call them townies.
“I’m a Newfoundlander, but not St. John’s born, no, not St. John’s born,” he said.
“You’re a bayman and you always will be,” my mother said.
I’ve been living on the West Coast for the last 4 years, so this was super nostalgic for me. Wayne Johnston is not even describing my St. John’s in this novel because it’s set between 1900 and 1950, but there’s something really special about still being able to vividly picture the setting of a story, especially when it’s a place like Newfoundland, which I hold so special in my heart.
I didn’t love Joe Smallwood’s character, but I did like the writing. This was one of my monthly challenge books and I’m glad I challenged myself to read it because I probably never would have gotten around to it otherwise. Johnston does a really great job with the setting. I don’t know how non-Newfoundlanders might feel about this book, but I loved the setting and the atmosphere Johnston created. Especially towards the end when we finally get to the whole business of confederation and the end of independence. I felt like Johnston did a good job of not taking a side and presenting both sides of the story. It really makes you reflect on what Newfoundland gained, what it lost, and what may or may not have been.
I read Greg Malone’s Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders several years ago and I felt that this book was a good contrast to that. Greg Malone is very clearly anti-confederation, as well as a bit of a conspiracy theorist. While I really liked Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders, because it has some great history in it and I learned a lot, it is very speculative and I liked that Wayne Johnston presented a more balanced version of history and I feel he left his personal feelings out of it.
For those of you not well versed in Newfoundland’s history, we we’re an independent country up until 1933 when we had a commission of government forced on us by the British as a result of our war debt (even though A LOT of Newfoundlanders lost their lives fighting for Great Britain in WWI – I am a little bitter, yes). I’ve written an entire blog post about Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders if you’re interested in our fascinating history (to me anyways), but basically we were supposed to get back our independence when we became self-sustaining once more, which we did after WWII. However, instead of just turning governance back over to Newfoundland, it was decided to hold a referendum to let the people choose if they wanted to join Canada instead.
Joe Smallwood wanted nothing more than to do something for which he would be remembered. He dropped out of Bishop Feild and failed at making a life for himself in New York, so he was desperate to have an influence in Newfoundland’s future. He was an avid socialist in his youth, but upon realizing that Newfoundlanders were never going to buy into socialism, he turned his talents to the Liberal government. He helped former Prime Minister Sir Richard Squires with his re-election campaign in hopes of winning the nomination to run himself, but he is jilted by Squires again and again and struggles to get into politics.
In this novel, he is a huge supporter of unions, walking across the entire provincial railroad line to start a rail-workers union, and he later travels all around Newfoundland’s most remote islands, trying to start a fisherman’s union. This really gave me an appreciation for how Smallwood became so popular and influential and why he supported Confederation. He really cared about Newfoundlanders and he spent an inordinate amount of time speaking with the poor throughout his life. He was also the host of a popular radio show that focused on sharing stories of Newfoundland and about Newfoundlanders.
The fisherman were not nationalists of any sort…They would vote for Confederation to get the mother’s allowance and would live by Confederation exactly as they had before…They had starved through a depression that had ended when the war began. Now, they were terrified that another decade like the thirties was on its way.
The crowd from St. John’s, the merchants and the wealthy, were all big supporters of independence. But Smallwood understood from his travels around Newfoundland that the majority of Newfoundlanders were poor fisherman, struggling to keep food on the table. They didn’t care about the government of the day and it rarely affected them. Confederation wouldn’t really change anything for them, except they’d be able to profit from access to Canada’s established public services.
The anti-confederates must have wondered how they lost…They had been to London and they had been to New York, but they had never been to Bonavista or La Poile, and that was why they lost.
Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders leaves you feeling angry and riled up, but The Colony of Unrequited Dreams gave me an appreciation of what it was really like for Newfoundlanders. Forget the politics and the conspiracies, rural fishermen just wanted to catch a break and this was something I never really understood before. Yet Johnston still presents the other side of the story and makes you feel very nostalgic for what might have been. Personally, I wish we could have seen what might have been had we re-gained our independence, but I do also think it’s likely that we might have ended up joining Canada anyways and I’m proud to be both a Newfoundlander and a Canadian. I think this must be one of the reasons why Newfoundlanders always retain such a keen sense of home no matter where they go. There is something unique about Newfoundland culture that does not come from Canada because we have not always been Canadian.
The ending of this book was heartbreaking for me though. I was a little bit disappointed that Johnston chose to end this book about Fielding. I really liked her, but as a fictional character, I don’t think her story was quite as powerful and it felt very anti-climatic to suddenly jump back into Fielding’s past.
“You all but gave away Churchill Falls, which you had hoped would crown your career as Confederation had crowned Mackenzie King’s”
Johnston touches very briefly on Churchill Falls and I wish he’d explored it more. If this book had been written 10 years later, I’m sure he would have because the Lower Churchill is such a hot topic in Newfoundland right now. But I found this so heartbreaking because Churchill Falls was meant to be Smallwood’s swan song – his legacy – and instead it turned out to be one of the worst deals every made and a real sore spot for Newfoundlanders. Smallwood did not have a successful start as Premier and Johnston portrays him running out of time in office and chasing after Churchill Falls as his last chance to see Newfoundland transformed.
That said, my favourite part of this book is easily the way Johnston writes about Newfoundland. You can tell he has a great love and reverence for the island. I’m sure any Newfoundlander can relate as there’s just something that makes Newfoundlanders have this deep attachment to their homeland. She’s a rocky isle in the ocean, and she’s pounded by winds from the sea, but you just can’t help but love her ruggedness and her people. Smallwood was relentless and he really did want to do something good for Newfoundland. His whole life was dedicated to making Newfoundlander better and I do really think he cared about the poor Newfoundlanders and that they are what ultimately motivated him to chase after confederation.
I have often thought of that train hurtling down the Bonavista like the victory express. And all around it the northern night, the barrens, the bogs, the rocks and ponds and hills of Newfoundland. The Straits of Belle Isle, from the island side of which I have seen the coast of Labrador.
These things, finally, primarily, are Newfoundland.
From a mind divesting itself of images, those of the land would be the last to go.
We are a people on whose mind these images have been imprinted.
We are a people in whose bodies old sea-seeking rivers roar with blood.