Books

Conjuring Smallwood

A new novel brilliantly evokes an era, if not its main protagonist

SANDRA GWYN November 9 1998
Books

Conjuring Smallwood

A new novel brilliantly evokes an era, if not its main protagonist

SANDRA GWYN November 9 1998

Conjuring Smallwood

Books

A new novel brilliantly evokes an era, if not its main protagonist

THE COLONY OF UNREQUITED DREAMS

By Wayne Johnston

(Knopf Canada, 562pages, $34.95)

It takes the nerve of a robber’s horse, as a Newfoundlander might say, to turn Joey Smallwood into a fictional character. This five-foot, six-inch colossus who all but single-handedly swept Newfoundland into Confederation was such an overwhelming phenomenon that even Tolstoy might have had a tough time with him. Smallwood’s own command of the language was peerless: he described one opponent as suffering from “cupidity, stupidity and malignant self-esteem.” Small wonder that in his wonderfully titled fifth novel, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Wayne Johnston does not succeed. The Joey he presents as firstperson narrator is far too self-observant ever to have been capable of the exercise in raw, focused power that it took to drag Newfoundlanders into Canada, a feat that would be the equivalent today of a small-time radio host (as Smallwood then was) propelling Canada into union with the United States.

Yet The Colony of Unrequited Dreams richly deserves its nominations for this year’s Giller Prize and Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction. If Johnston (The Divine Ryans), a 40-year-old native of Newfoundland now living in Toronto, never quite gets under Joey’s skin, he brilliantly evokes the circumstances that produced him: the old, pre-Confederation Newfoundland, class-ridden and penurious, funny and tragic, and with “a beauty so elusive, so tantalizingly suggestive of something you could not quite put into words that it could drive you mad.” The opening chapters sweep the reader into the St. John’s of the 1910s. Johnston conjures up “the smell of the salt fish... so many schooners that when their sails were down, the harbor was a grove of spear-like masts.” Sharply etched characters bristle on the pages, including Smallwood’s rumbustious, alcoholic father, Charlie—“The house did not seem quite right when he was sober, nor did he seem to know what to do with himself, but would wander around as if he was not entirely sure what it was that sober people did.” Then there is the fictional Headmaster

Reeves, a former imperial soldier who runs the real-life Bishop Feild College, an imitation of a British public school that Smallwood attended thanks to a wealthy uncle. Reeves “always walked about with a blackboard pointer tucked like a swagger stick beneath his arm,” writes Johnston. “He called Newfoundland ‘the Elba of the North Atlantic.’ ” Above all, there is another invented character, Sheilagh Fielding, one of the most memorable females in recent Canadian fiction. She is a daughter of St. John’s “quality” who becomes a hard-drinking newspaper columnist. Fielding is a metaphor for Newfoundland itself, and also Smallwood’s conscience and unfulfilled love. (Though the real Smallwood married a Newfoundlander, Clara Oates, in 1925, he had just one affair of the heart, with the American singer Lillian Zahn,

whom he met in New York Cityin the 1920s.) Described by Johnston as “inscrutably ironic” yet also vulnerable, Fielding serves as co-narrator along with Smallwood. Fier eloquent diary and her witty history of Newfoundland add to the novel’s

rich texture.

Less assured is Johnston’s handling of Joey’s youthful conversion to socialism, which he eventually abandoned for Liberalism and for power. In the author’s version, the epiphany happened during a sealing disaster when the teenage Smallwood, on hand as a reporter, witnessed a hard-bitten captain casually sending a party of sealers into a terrible storm. It matters not that the real-life Smallwood never got anywhere near this famous tragedy. It does matter, greatly, that his real socialist mentor and his idol, the messianic William Ford Coaker, who founded Newfoundland’s first fishermen’s union, is never mentioned.

But Johnston’s account of Smallwood’s first great political act, a marathon walk across Newfoundland in 1925, organizing railway-section men into a union, is a tour de force. “I carried my suitcase on a stick slung over my shoulder,” Smallwood recalls. “It bumped on my back with every stride until, about a week into the walk, one of the section men fashioned me a shoulder harness like cigarette girls wore and I walked with my suitcase flat in front of me, and with a book laid open on it.” And the chapter depicting his slavish relationship with Sir Richard Squires, a corrupt Newfoundland prime minister of the 1930s who “affected an aristocratic manner as though his knighthood had been self-conferred,” is a masterpiece of social comedy.

In the last quarter of the book, Johnston loses his way, as if he couldn’t decide how he really feels about his hero. Smallwood’s finest hour, the Confederation campaign of 1948, reads almost as an afterthought. Ultimately, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is a very good book that misses being a great one. It’s also a marvellous read. That it exists, along with so much else artistic out of Newfoundland, confirms that on the brink of the 50th anniversary of the province’s entry into Confederation, Joey Smallwood’s children are transforming his “poor, bald rock” into a hotbed of creative expression.

SANDRA GWYN