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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Guest Post: Ann Weir's review of Wayne Johnston's Colony of Unrequited Dreams)

(Guest post for the 5th Canadian Book Challenge)

More than 550 pages long, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is the fictional story of Joe Smallwood’s life in Newfoundland and his rise to become the province’s first Premier. Wayne Johnston has created an epic novel full of detail about Smallwood’s early life and his tireless efforts to break into the power structure, which in Newfoundland was historically occupied by transplanted Brits and a few wealthy Newfoundlanders. Growing up in poverty due to his father’s unwillingness to participate in the family’s successful boot making business, Smallwood is given the opportunity to attend the prestigious Bishop Feild College at the age of 12. Here he encounters the other central character in the book, Sheilagh Fielding, a student of the neighbouring girls’ school. When they are both expelled, their lives become intertwined and remain so for the rest of the story.

Johnston has cleverly structured the narrative around real events in Smallwood’s life to the point where fact and fiction blend together seamlessly. The early chapters covering his childhood stand out, as Smallwood’s parents are two of the book’s most entertaining characters. Descriptions of his later travels across Newfoundland are very insightful, revealing the source of Smallwood’s undying affection for the place and it’s people. Johnston’s use of the iconic book, D.W. Prowse’s History of Newfoundland as a reoccurring symbol worked well, as it reinforced Smallwood’s strong ties to his homeland. The weakest part of the book in my view was the fictional character of Fielding, who I found to be unnecessary and not very likable. Fielding’s writings appear frequently in the form of journals, letters, her own History of Newfoundland and newspaper articles from her career as a political columnist. I found her writing to be nasty, rather than ironic, and her character to be self-centered, rather than being sympathetic. She seemed to be this unfortunate burden that Smallwood couldn’t shake. However, I chose to read The Colony of Unrequited Dreams in the hope of learning more about Smallwood and Newfoundland and the book certainly delivered on both those counts.

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