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The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne…

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (original 1998; edition 1999)

by Wayne Johnston

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9911913,027 (4.06)174
Title:The Colony of Unrequited Dreams
Authors:Wayne Johnston
Info:Random House of Canada, Limited (1999), Edition: 1st Edition. Signed., Paperback, 608 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:historical fiction

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The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston (1998)

Recently added byvnfc, merrileer, jigarpatel, phduncan, private library, 17480FortRoad, Pawelek, Dave_Amonson



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i don't know enough about Joey Smallwood to know whether he was such a cipher. But if he was even the addition of a love interest for him - which apparently was controversial - fails to save the Smallwood character in this book from being at all interesting. The character has no interior depth and as the book is first person it eventually just becomes a long drone. There's no feeling to his feelings for Fielding, little depth to his feelings about his father - and those are really the only meaningful interpersonal dynamics at play in the book. Smallwood's interior monologue is nothing more than blank description of things with occassional motivation thrown in His political evolution is dealt with as a mere fact and small event, his motivations for confederation are undeveloped. If you're looking for a historical read this is not it. If you're looking for an interesting character study, this is not it. If you're looking for a romance, this is not it. This is written in the style of the later moderns - a loose baggy thing patterned on Dickens but without his detail, interesting characters or historical grounding - like a later John Irving novel. I was very much looking forward to this book and very disappointed to read it. unrequited, indeed. ( )
  TBergen | Sep 1, 2018 |
Started this book many years ago and didn't finish it. However, finally got there and it was worth the read. Joey Smallwood was a fascinating figure in Canadian History one I'm sure many children in school nowadays know nothing about, and as such his life deserves reviewing. Told from the perspective of Joey himself for the most part, this book takes you through his childhood, his struggles towards adulthood and his monumental failures for the better part of his life, until he manages to bring Newfoundland into Confederation and becomes the first premier of Newfoundland. Funny, touching, self deprecating at times Joey tells an interesting (if not always honest) tale. The counterpoint to Joey is a fictional character named Sheilagh Fielding, a kind of drunken Jiminy Cricket to Joey's often wobbly conscience and political commitment. She haunts his whole life and in many ways gives insight to the man Joe Smallwood becomes by pointing out some of his glaring omissions and questionable justifications. ( )
  LindaWeeks | May 14, 2018 |
sweeping epic of NewFoundland
  MatkaBoska | Jul 10, 2017 |
"We are a people in whose bodies old sea-seeking rivers roar with blood."

I had The Colony Of Unrequited Dreams on my Canada reading list. To be fair, the book was not high up on the list as my knowledge of and interest in Newfoundland was pretty non-existent. If I say my interest in Newfoundland was pretty low, imagine how eager I would have been to read a fictionalised biography of Joseph Smallwood, Newfoundland's first Premier and the politician to lead the Dominion of Newfoundland into the confederation in 1949.
Yeah, exactly...had it not been for a CBC group read here on GR, I probably would have missed out on what turned out to be a fascinating read that not only changed my perception of the province but also taught me a lot about Canadian history.

As mentioned, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is a fictionalised biography, and as such it starts off by telling about Smallwood's childhood and his upbringing in an impoverished environment, though he himself was able to attend school and was taught by what seemed British expats with a lot of chips on their shoulders from being stranded in the last outpost of civilisation - i.e. anywhere but Britain.

"All my marks had gone dramatically up, except my mark for character, which had stayed at forty-five. Its being not only so low, but also fixed, never-changing, was the point. It could not change, Reeves seemed to be saying; my other marks could go up or down, as the case might be, but my character, my fundamental self, would stay the same. I might as well have had forty-five stamped on my forehead. I was what I was, my character was my fate and my fate was forty-five."

To be honest, the mention of "forty-five" made me cringe. I read Alistair McLeod's novel No Great Mischief earlier this year and I sincerely hoped that Johnston would not follow that same path that Alistair McLeod chose for his characters, where all events and character traits where blamed on the "forty-five", though in McLeod's case referring to the Scottish Jacobite rising and the Battle of Culloden of 1745.

I was hugely relieved the Scottish topic did not make an appearance in Johnston's book. (Obviously, I'm still scarred from reading No Great Mischief.)
However, the reference to Smallwood's character being criticised and the overall dismissive attitude by his tutors of anything local, anything originating in Newfoundland, seemed to have a profound impact on the young Smallwood - who early on decides that he should write the "great Newfoundland" novel. The literary aspirations of young Smallwood do not come to fruition, however, as he is kicked out of school over a letter he is being accused of writing. Incidentally, Fielding, his childhood friend from the neighbouring girls' school is also forced to leave shortly after. Her leaving, too, happens under unresolved circumstances and she too seems to have been involved in the letter that caused Smallwood's dismissal.

From there on, the lives of both "friends" intertwine all throughout the story. Fielding, an alcoholic already in her youth, sets out on a career in journalism. Smallwood initially joins her but then decides to become a socialist and travel the land for the cause:

"I had bought a Bible in Corner Brook because I hoped my supposed religiosity would impress the sectionmen who fed me and let me spend the night in their shacks. It did, but, more important, it impressed their wives. When their wives went to my suitcase to get any clothes that needed washing, there was the Bible. That Bible, not one page of which I read along the way, kept many a section-man who was otherwise inclined to do so from dismissing me as a Godless socialist and convinced them to sign up with the union. I told them and their wives that when I thought I could not take another step, I took out the Bible and was inspired by reading it to carry on. “I could not have come this far without it,” I shamelessly said, at the same time recalling the many times I had been tempted to lighten my load by throwing it away."

I won't re-tell the story from here on as this would spoil reading the book but eventually Smallwood is in a position where he owns a paper rivaling Fielding's columns and her political satire. It was fascinating to watch the two characters - the semi-historical Smallwood and the entirely fictional Fielding - interact in the course of the story.

In a way, Fielding and Smallwood are complementary to each other: where Smallwood is driven by ambition and will not shy away from any trick in the book, Fielding is pragmatic, direct and proud of her integrity.

"She was called a fence-sitter and was challenged to defend herself, which she did by saying the accusation might or might not be true."

Confrontations between the two are what made the book rather special:

“You lost your job?”
“No,” she said, “I know exactly where it is. As of two months ago, it was taken from me.” “You didn’t lose your job because of the union,” I said, “you lost your job because you wouldn’t join the union.”
“Smallwood,” Fielding said, “are you some sort of agency of fate that it would be pointless of me to resist? If you are, tell me now so I can shoot myself without regret.”

While Fielding was without doubt my favourite character, Johnston masterfully interjects other aspects into the book that are really interesting. For one, Johnston alternates the storytelling through different styles: Smallwood's perspective is told by way of narration from Smallwood's perspective, Fielding's story on the other hand is told through her letters to Smallwood. Both parts are separated with excerpts of real and fictionalised books about the history of Newfoundland.

One memorable event that Johnston manages to web into the story is the sealing disaster of the S.S. Newfoundland that led a group of sealers frozen between two ships - neither allowing them shelter from the icy storms before they had caught the set quota of seals. The scene is not one that can easily be forgotten and Johnston does well to catch the despair and sadness of the event without exaggerating.

Overall, Johnston's writing of the whole book is excellent.

"Where the water stopped, the wind went overland until it met up again with water on the other side, each one, it seemed, driven on by the other. Everything was headed one way — clouds, wind, water, the waves so high the horizon was near and jagged, bobbing as if I was jumping up and down. I was sure the motion of the waves must extend right to the bottom, the whole ocean running like a river infinitely wide. It was impossible not to personify the wind."

However, there were still a few snags that kept me from loving this book more: One was the character of Smallwood. Even though the book is amount him, we don't get to know him well. Of course, not being able to read his character could be befitting of a politician. With Smallwood, though, a lot of things were hinted at but never explored, such as his relationship to his family and people other than Fielding. As a reader of a historical novel I would have liked to have seen more of Smallwood as a person and as a politician, not just as Fielding's counter-part.

"I thought about telling him that Fielding had saved my life, but I could not bring myself to do it, for it seemed to me that the more people there were who knew of Fielding’s heroism, the more indebted to Fielding I would be. I not only felt indebted to her, I felt, for reasons I could not understand, that her having saved my life rendered me morally inferior to her."

With respect to Fielding also, there was an issue that seemed to drag the book unnecessarily. Fielding's secret, the reason she was forced to leave school, and the mystery of the letter that caused Smallwood's expulsion, is revealed at a painstakingly slow pace - and left me somewhat disappointed. Btw, the secret is not what you might think it is - there is a twist, but I didn't feel the mystery element was needed in the novel and just drags it out.

I shall leave with one more journalistic punch up between Fielding and Smallwood:

“Got a phone call from himself yesterday. I made a suggestion. He made, and offered to help me carry out, a suggestion of his own. Said on the record I was off my rocker. Off the record a good deal more. The words Scotch and bitch came up a lot.”

(Editor’s explanation: Miss Fielding and Mr. Smallwood, though they have never met, chat frequently by phone, often sharing a chuckle over the unaccountable rumours that there exists between them some sort of animosity. The words Scotch and bitch came up frequently in their most recent conversation because Mr. Smallwood had phoned Miss Fielding with the happy news that his terrier had just had a litter of puppies, three of whom were female. Miss Fielding, who had been promised the pick of the litter and who has followed with much interest and concern the course of Pokey’s pregnancy these past few months, could not have been more pleased. As for the exchange of suggestions, it demonstrates perfectly the deep-seated friendship that exists between these two, which no amount of professional rivalry can undermine.)"

( )
  BrokenTune | Aug 21, 2016 |
Warning: this review contains spoilers.


This is the story of Newfoundland as it moves from British colony to Canadian province. It is also the story of Joseph Smallwood, the province's first premier, and Sheilagh Fielding, a journalist and contemporary of Smallwood's who spends her days drinking and writing sharp-tongued satirical newspaper columns. The two contrasting viewpoints provide a multifaceted view of Newfoundland in all her wonder and wistfulness.

I went into this knowing virtually nothing about Smallwood other than that he was Newfoundland's first premier, and it was an absorbing read. The Newsday review quoted on the back cover of the copy I read called this "a capacious, hammock-like book you can sink into", and that description is accurate. Because of the two viewpoints (Smallwood and Fielding), the narrative is constantly in motion, guiding the reader smoothly from one incident to the next. Time does have a way of compressing itself a bit much if you're not paying attention, and I never did figure out who Hines actually was, but overall it was a very good book.

The events worked well as fiction, although I would have liked an author's note at the end, like John McFetridge has in his Eddie Dougherty series, where he talks about the historical events in the book and explains how he's adapted/pillaged them from real life. I went the entire book without realizing that Fielding didn't exist! I may be gullible for believing that, but she really came to life on the page and I would have read more by or about her if she'd actually existed.

Further reading after this book:
Smallwood: The Unlikely Revolutionary, by Richard Gwyn -- to get a truer story
River Thieves, by Michael Crummey -- about the Beothuk, who are briefly mentioned in one of the interludes from "Fielding's Condensed History of Newfoundland".

Recommended for those who like to read books from all parts of Canada and want a glimpse into the youngest Canadian province. It was also nominated for a Giller Prize and featured on Canada Reads, so if you like to read books featured by either of these institutions, this would be a good choice. ( )
  rabbitprincess | Aug 16, 2016 |
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The history of the Colony is only very partially contained in printed books; it lies buried under great rubbish heaps of unpublished records, English, Municipal, Colonial and Foreign, in rare pamphlets, old Blue Books, forgotten manuscripts . . . -- D.W. Prowse, A History of Newfoundland (1895)
For seven women of St. John's

Claire Wilkshire, Mary Lewis, Lisa Moore, Sue Crocker, Mary Dalton, Beth Ryan and Ramona Dearing
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I am a Newfoundlander.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0385495439, Paperback)

In 1949, Joseph Smallwood became the first premier of the newly federated Canadian province of Newfoundland. Predictably, and almost immediately, his name retreated to the footnotes of history. And yet, as Wayne Johnston makes plain in his epic and affectionate fifth novel, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Smallwood's life was endearingly emblematic, an instance of an extraordinary man emerging at a propitious moment. The particular charm of Johnston's book, however, lies not merely in unveiling a career that so seamlessly coincided with the burgeoning self-consciousness of Newfoundland itself, but in exposing a simple truth--namely, that history is no more than the accretion of lived lives.

Born into debilitating poverty, Smallwood is sustained by a bottomless faith in his own industry. His unabashed ambition is to "rise not from rags to riches, but from obscurity to world renown." To this end, he undertakes tasks both sublime and baffling--walking 700 miles along a Newfoundland railroad line in a self-martyring union drive; narrating a homespun radio spot; and endlessly irritating and ingratiating himself with the Newfoundland political machine. His opaque and constant incitement is an unconsummated love for his childhood friend, Sheilagh Fielding. Headstrong and dissolute, she weaves in and out of Smallwood's life like a salaried goad, alternately frustrating and illuminating his ambitions. Smallwood is harried as well by Newfoundland's subtle gravity, a sense that he can never escape the tug of his native land, since his only certainty is the island itself--that "massive assertion of land, sea's end, the outer limit of all the water in the world, a great, looming, sky-obliterating chunk of rock."

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams bogs down after a time in its detailing of Smallwood's many political intrigues and in the lingering matter of a mysterious letter supposedly written by Fielding. However, when he speculates on the secret motives of his peers, or when he reveals his own hyperbolic fantasies and grandiose hopes--matters no one would ever confess aloud--the novel is both apt and amiable. Best of all is to watch Smallwood's inevitable progress toward a practical cynicism. It seems nothing less than miraculous that his countless disappointments pave the way for his ascension, that his private travails ultimately align with the land he loves. This is history resuscitated. --Ben Guterson

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:17 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

A novel on a 40-year love-hate relationship between a colorful politician and his childhood love, now a journalist. He is Joe Smallwood, populist premier of Newfoundland and their relationship is portrayed in his memoir, interspersed with her acerbic comments.… (more)

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