"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 group read 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.)"