For my reading challenge list item for August, I asked my friends to recommend a book that they liked that was in a genre they generally disliked. My friend JoAnn suggested the historical fiction "The Colony of Unrequited Dreams" by Wayne Johnston, published in 1999. She says she found the book at a library sale and chose it for the title, and though she generally doesn't read stories set in that time period, she enjoyed it.
The novel is set in Newfoundland in the early 1900s and follows the fictionalized version of the story of real-life politician Joey Smallwood. Smallwood was influential in Newfoundland joining as part of Canada in the '40s and became the new province's first premier. Johnston takes the facts of Smallwood's life and legacy and weaves them with fictional possibilities and motives, in the process creating real human depth to a historic figure that most outside of Newfoundland likely know very little about.
Johnston imagines for Smallwood a fictional life-long foil -- writer and journalist Sheilagh Fielding, who from childhood on becomes a source of frustration, a thorn in his side, and also an unrequited love interest. Smallwood, while born into poverty, is determined to do something great and make a name for himself. When he strays from his idealism into corruption and gullibility, Fielding and her newspaper column are there to mock him. While Smallwood dreams big, Fielding and her acerbic wit bring him back down to size.
Smallwood is our narrator, however, Johnston portrays him so realistically with all his faults and failings that it can sometimes be hard to like our "hero" even through his own perceptions. We see a glimpse of what the real person might have been like behind the facade of the political legend.
Throughout the novel, Johnston has used Smallwood's travels to paint a beautiful if stark picture of early life in Newfoundland. We see families and hermits of all stripes in the many different settings of the island, which Smallwood describes as being so large that it was easy to forget it was not just a part of the mainland. The range of natural features and even weather is so broad that each trip Smallwood takes might as well be several vignettes set all over the world.
Between each chapter is a chapter of a fictional book called Fielding's Condensed "History of Newfoundland" which gives short tidbits of the major developments and events throughout the island's history. Real facts about Newfoundland are written about sarcastically by Smallwood's friend/foe, her irony reminiscent of the quirky British cynicism on display in Monty Python. These interludes are an enjoyable break from the real and imagined drama of Smallwood's life -- providing a nice contrast between Smallwood's history and that of Newfoundland to give the reader some perspective. It compels us to ask what is really important to us -- the details of history as we know them over a span of centuries or the minutiae of one person's life?
As Smallwood ages, he becomes ruthless in his pursuit of greatness. We watch him transform from a young man who is idealistic and righteous, fighting for the poor and to better his country, into a man of middle age who is selfish and ambitious and fights mostly for a chance to get his name in the history books. As he feels his time is running out to make his mark on the world, he becomes the type of person he has always hated. Thankfully for us, and for the eventual old age redemption of Smallwood, Fielding is always there to very publicly remind him of what he has become.
For me, the history was fascinating and Smallwood did lead a pretty amazing and interesting life. Yet, I found myself more drawn to the fictional character of Fielding than anything else. A mysterious incident that bound these two together in primary school keeps them intertwined their entire lives, and though we mostly see how this affects them through Smallwood's view, the effect it has on Fielding is a much more rewarding journey.
After reading this book, I immediately had to research Smallwood and Newfoundland to find where Johnston had blurred the lines between fact and fiction. He had done it so incredibly well that I could not tell instinctively what was real and what was not. Like my friend JoAnn, I don't know that I would have intentionally sought out this book, but I'm glad that it came across my path.