Wayne Johnston's The Colony of Unrequited Dreams links the history of Newfoundland with the journey of protagonist Joe Smallwood, an ambitious country man whose past haunts him almost as much as his country does, and Shelagh Fielding, a reporter and satirist whose secrets reveal her as powerfully engaging. Smallwood's life on the Brow, the poorest section of St. John's in Newfoundland, is forever changed by his admittance to a private school and an encounter with Fielding, the quick-witted student of his sister school. A secret letter, which gets both Smallwood and Fielding expelled, plays a crucial role in their lives as they create their own journeys she as a reporter and writer, he as a socialist, then liberal, and finally a confederate supporter. Leaving Newfoundland to prove his worthiness to his father and country, Smallwood attempts to create a life in New York as a socialist, only to find that his dreams are never realized and his return to Newfoundland is inevitable. Fielding's own secret history takes her to New York, where she too discovers the pain of lost identity. Smallwood aggressively pursues his career as a politician while ignoring the feelings of love he has for Fielding. Upon her return to Newfoundland, Fielding attempts to drown her past and abandonment of her father in alcohol. The Colony of Unrequited Dreams tells the story of many histories, one of the most clever being Johnston's portrayal of Newfoundland, which takes on its own foreboding character. Smallwood's tales of seal hunting, railroad unionizing, and politics depicts the history of a dark and cold continent whose inhabitants are sometimes ambivalent, uncivil, and doomed to always return to their country. Through Fielding's funny and satirical account of Newfoundland's history in her Condensed History of Newfoundland, Johnston portrays the irony of Newfoundland's history. Coincidental encounters, words never spoken, and human frailty characterize what is perhaps the most engaging story Johnston tells, that is, the history of Smallwood's relationship with Fielding. It is through the slow unraveling of this history that we are endeared to Smallwood and Fielding as they discover their failings, their connections to their colony, and the true nature of their relationship. Thankfully, Johnston tells of these histories through a language that is profound, often funny, sometimes ironic, all of which contribute to the page-turning quality of The Colony of Unrequited Dreams.
Ginny Bess is a reviewer in Indianapolis, Indiana.