"The Colony Of Unrequited Dreams"

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston

Wayne Johnston is a wonderful writer. I read "The Navigator Of New York" a few years ago and happily had the same excellent reading experience this time. These books aren't the sort you just have to keep reading to see what happens next. I had no problem setting this one aside to read our Book Club selection then picking it up where I had left off. That doesn't sound like much of a recommendation but a sizzling plot isn't everything. These books have good stories, but the thing that stands out to me is that they are simply darn pleasurable reading. If the book never ended I'd go on reading it forever because it's so enjoyable, like sitting in your favourite chair or wearing comfortable old shoes.

The story here is a fictional account of Joey Smallwood's life. For those too young to remember, he was the Newfoundlander who successfully pushed for Newfoundland to join Canadian Confederation in 1949 and who then became it's first Premier. I don't really understand how fiction and the lives of real people mix in a book. I'm unsure what parts we are supposed to believe and what to call fiction. I don't even understand how it's legal to make up stories about actual people. Does calling it fiction allow a writer to say whatever he wants? I don't know. I just know I liked it.

In this account, Smallwood's story is not at all what you'd expect in the life of a prominent politician. His family, education, personal life and career are colourful and make for a unique and sometimes strange tale.  He is socially inept and a complete dud when it comes to personal relationships, but politically, he's driven by an unstoppable will. When he wants something, he'll do whatever it takes to get it and he won't allow anything or anyone to keep him from it.

For me the main character in this story is Newfoundland itself, and from the title I think that's what the author intended. I grew up with Newfoundland being a province of Canada and am slightly embarrassed to say I never gave a thought to what it was before that. I found reading about pre-confederation Newfoundland nothing short of fascinating; I couldn't get enough of it. By the end of the book I was convinced that joining Confederation was a bad idea for Newfoundland - and I'm Canadian!

You'll fall in love with the harsh, beautiful land, the wild, unpredictable weather and the people, from the quirky, competitive city-dwellers to the stalwart souls living in the outports, who live only on what they can provide for themselves surrounded by ice, water and rock. I don't think I've ever read of harsher living or hardier people. 

The authour creates for us some refreshingly honest word-pictures of life on this unique island. He talks about their "...perverse pride in our ability to do anything, even fail, on so grand a scale. Whether our distinguishing national trait was resourcefulness or laziness, ineptitude or competence, honesty or corruptibility, did not seem to matter as long as we were famous for it, as long as we were acknowledged as being unmatched in the world for something." and about standing on a boat offshore "...regarding the somehow oppressively spectacular scenery, the houses in their drearily bright and cheerful, state-of-the-universe-denying colours."  If ever you should see the bright rainbow colours of coastal village houses, you will know exactly what he means by "state-of-the-universe-denying colours" (one of the best descriptions I've ever heard). They signal such optimism, such cheer in what seems like pretty cheerless living conditions. 

He writes another passage that gives us some idea of  the isolation of residents in the more remote locations: "What I had not realized was how cut off from the world in both space and time these people were. Most of them did not understand or even have a word for the concept of government." They "had only the most rudimentary understanding of what a country was. And at the same time were destitute beyond anything I imagined when I first set out."

I could go on forever but I'll spare you. Just read the book and let Newfoundland seep into your imagination, then I wish you the best of luck trying to resist the temptation to go and see with your own eyes what Wayne Johnston has described so perfectly. 


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