25. Wild Card: The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston
One of the things I have enjoyed about this list is getting to read books that I never would have pushed myself to read otherwise. And for this book, I had an extra motivating force: The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, by Wayne Johnston, is my partner Andrea’s favorite book, and we decided to read it out loud in turns together over Skype. I cannot think of another set of circumstances that would have led me to read a nearly 600 page piece of historical fiction about Newfoundland’s first premier, Joey Smallwood. But I am glad for the motivation I had to get through this lovely, loping book with its contemplative prose and strong imagery (even if the main character could be a bit of a…shall we say, a tool).
The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, published in 1998, is a bit of an odd situation in terms of its position as historical fiction. It is narrative of Joey Smallwood’s life, told using mostly factual information, but with a fictional journalist named Sheilagh Fielding serving as a lifelong friend, occasional adversary, and love interest. Fielding is not just an occasional composite character there to smooth out the narrative, she is centered as the motivation for many of Smallwood’s decisions and life choices, to the overwhelming exclusion of his actual wife and family. I know more about Newfoundland than I did before I started this book, but not nearly enough about Joe Smallwood to sort fact from fiction there. But Fielding is a wonderful character, so I am willing to go along with the novel’s quasi-historical vibe.
More than being just a story of Smallwood, Colony is the story of Newfoundland and its identity. The title perfectly sets up the tone of wistfulness about one’s place in the world and a sense of loss as potential futures slip through your hands. Joe Smallwood is the politician who ultimately spearheaded confederation with Canada for Newfoundland, but this comes at the loss of Newfoundland’s identity as an independent nation, which was already hard-won from England. The full history of the island is traced out through interludes of “Fielding’s Condensed History of Newfoundland”, a sarcastic and snarky compilation that the character is writing, and it serves to give context to uninformed readers while also painting a detailed picture of a stubborn, strong population clinging to their windswept rock of a country with all of their might. The lush descriptions of the Newfoundland landscape and lifestyle are truly lovely and one of the book’s best strengths.
Fielding and Smallwood are great characters with funny, sharp personalities, but are generally best when used as lenses through which to see Newfoundland. Smallwood’s stubbornness and inability to see past himself for longer than a moment can wear thin by the end of the novel, but he is a great point of view character for a story like this, someone with a big, overconfident personality who was a key player in one of the biggest pieces of Newfoundland history. Wayne Johnston clearly wants you to feel strongly about Smallwood and Newfoundland, even if he doesn’t care too much that you like them.
This is not a book that I would have picked up independently, and perhaps not one I would have finished independently either. But with a couple of great characters, some key images and prose that will stick in my mind, and a history that I would never have been introduced to otherwise, I’m glad that I put the time in to learn.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, though perhaps as a project with someone else. At over 500 pages, it’s tempting to get lost in the middle.