What is it about Newfoundland? A barren, wind-scoured rock, the island nonetheless seems to be endowed with rich emotional soil; like Ireland, it gives birth to the love-hate feelings that in turn produce literature. An inspired outsider, E. Annie Proulx, made it the setting of her most moving novel, "The Shipping News," and now an insider, Wayne Johnston, has captured some of the same magic in "The Colony of Unrequited Dreams," a neo-Victorian saga of history, politics and thwarted love.
One of its two narrators is Joe Smallwood, a historical figure who became premier of Newfoundland after the island voted in 1949 to become part of Canada. Puny of body but hugely ambitious, Johnston's Smallwood is a drunkard's son who grows up in the slums of the capital, St. John's, attends private school on a scholarship and bitterly resents the snubs of "the quality," the assumption that such as he "could climb to the top rung of our little ladder, but we could not switch to the larger ladder the others were climbing."
The counter-narrator is Shielagh Fielding, a doctor's daughter who is expelled from her private school in a scandal over an anonymous letter that affects many lives. She confesses to having written it, but its true authorship remains a mystery. Freakishly tall, ironic, acerbic, lamed by a near-fatal bout with tuberculosis, she writes newspaper columns, journals and a "Condensed History of Newfoundland" that poke fun at Smallwood's story and hint at emotional depths he never plumbs.
Smallwood has feelings--plenty of them--but he keeps a distance from them even as they impel his political career. In one of the novel's many striking set pieces, he accompanies the sealing fleet as a teenage reporter. Men seeking refuge on another ship as a storm blows in are told to return to their own, lest they consume too much of their host's provisions. The storm lasts 58 hours. Lost on the drifting floes, 80 men freeze to death. No one is held responsible.
The incident turns Smallwood into a Socialist, yet as he watches the corpses being hacked out of the ice, "my body grieved but not my mind. I felt as though someone who was sitting right beside me was crying, and though I wanted to console him, I could not."
Love too he views warily, as a biological trap that keeps people, such as his father, from amounting to anything. "Fielding," he reflects, "could no more fall in love than I could. . . . It was because we agreed on this one thing that we could not bear each other's company. I had married sensibly, and Fielding, sensibly, had remained unmarried."
Smallwood's true passion, he believes, is bettering the lives of his fellow Newfoundlanders after 400 years of exploitation by Britain. He walks the breadth of the island's lonely interior to unionize the people manning section shacks on 700 miles of railroad--an epic journey that makes his name. During the Depression, he travels by boat and on foot to starving coastal settlements, and later, as "The Barrelman," he boosts Newfoundland on the radio.
Sincerity and ruthlessness are mixed in him, as they were in Lyndon Johnson. "A politician should believe that the welfare of his people depends on his success," he says. "Everything I do for me I do for them. And so the day may arrive when to tell the difference between selfishness and selflessness becomes impossible."
Only late in life does he suspect that politics may be a mirage, that the real meaning of people's lives may lie somewhere else--in love, for instance. We readers know, even if they don't, that Smallwood and Fielding have loved each other for 40 years. And surely they would have realized it long ago, except . . . well, the plot is one reason: all those Dickensian secrets they're hiding. And the other is an Old World staidness that inhibits them even in the rawest surroundings. We see it in the novels of Robertson Davies ("What's Bred in the Bone," etc.), as well. Maybe, without unduly stereotyping Canadians, we can call it a north-of-the-49th-parallel sensibility, unacquainted with tropical heat.
It's a sensibility that Johnston renders with charm and in prose that, if not so quirkily brilliant as Proulx's, is capable of powerful effects. "The Colony of Unrequited Dreams" is, in fact, one of the year's best novels: serious and funny, uncompromisingly original yet accessible; it makes us feel at home in a place about as different from here as could be.