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Wayne Johnston: The Colony of Unrequited Dreams

This is the fictionalised biography of Joey Smallwood, who was primarily responsible for Newfoundland’s union with Canada. Smallwood starts from a humble background. His father is from a family of boot-makers – Smallwood’s boots are known all over the island – but he has broken off relationships with his family and struggles to make a living, though he has no difficulty fathering children. Young Joey, however, is able to take advantage of the family connections and is sent to a private school. The school is next to a girls’ school and one of the students at the girls’ school – Shelagh Fielding, though known to everyone as simply Fielding – frequently (and illegally) joins the boys during their playtime. When she tangles with Joey who, despite being much smaller than her, is able to best her with words, a lifelong love-hate relationship starts up between the two.

His stay at the school is soon curtailed as the very snobbish English headmaster looks down on him and he realises that his school days will not succeed there, despite his excellent academic record. He becomes a journalist, as does Fielding. He covers the seal hunt (and sees many men killed when a storm comes in). He goes to New York as a committed socialist. He travels the entire length of the railway to recruit railway workers for the union. He makes a tour round the outer edges of Newfoundland, helping the poor fishermen. And, all the while, three things stand in his way. The first is Newfoundland, a cold, wet miserable place which not only the English hate but so do many of the inhabitants. Smallwood is the rare exception. The second is the politics of the island, which knocks him down, with its pro-English, anti-Newfoundland approach, but he always come back for more. Finally, there is his nemesis, Fielding. Obviously, the two should have married but, failing that, Fielding, always seems to be there, either to help him or knock him down.

The epic portrait of Smallwood, tough, resilient (though small), fighting through all adversity, determined to achieve his aims, is superb. But it is the portrait of Fielding that makes this novel, Fielding the woman with a past, the alcoholic, the brilliant satirist, the tough lady, always there, always surviving but with a secret love for Joey Smallwood. Of course, there is a third hero and that hero is Newfoundland itself, poor pitiful, cold, wet Newfoundland, despised by its colonial masters, not enthusiastically welcomed by the rest of Canada but a place that Johnston and Smallwood can be proud of.

Publishing history

First published 1999 by Doubleday