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Within the Tribal Circle
by Norman Ravvin

In the summer of 1997, I went to Newfoundland when a replica of John Cabot's caravel was making its slow way across the Atlantic to mark the 500th Anniversary of European landfall at Bonavista. Wayne Johnston's new novel, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, offers its readers a glimpse of Bonavista, as its narrative follows Joe Smallwood's rise from down-and-out socialist agitation on the St. John's docks, to his role in leading Newfoundland into Confederation. It's in Bonavista where Smallwood is first elected, as a confederate candidate, at a time when no one but the island's British colonial masters seem in favour of it entering the Canadian union. But inevitably-and it is this that Johnston's book portrays most ingeniously-Smallwood's respect for and his direct contact with so many of the island's outport communities are what gain him a constituency in favour of his confederate stance.

Johnston has great powers as a writer of comic scenes, both bittersweet and uproarious. His fictional biography of Smallwood follows its sad-sack hero to New York in the 1920s, where he works for a socialist newspaper known as the Call; then back to Newfoundland, where a number of business schemes go flat; through his career as a radio announcer known as The Barrelman, beloved for his downhomey broadcasts of pro-Newfoundland chatter to outports inhabited by people who "had never seen an automobile, a train, a motorized vehicle of any kind except a boat." It is Smallwood's public persona as a booster for local culture that attracts the attention of the British colonial administration, and he is swept up into the larger machinations of the power elite of St. John's.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is not limited to a portrait of Joe Smallwood's rise against all odds. It is a big book which aims to depict the island's landscape, along with the key historical and cultural events that formed the local character. To do this, Johnston gives Smallwood an alter ego of sorts-a St. John's journalist who goes by the moniker Fielding, and is in fact a childhood nemesis of Smallwood's. Fielding's sharp-tongued readings of Newfoundland history, and of Smallwood himself, are rendered in excerpts from her journal, as well as in short outtakes from an unfinished manuscript she is writing called Fielding's Condensed History of Newfoundland.

There is a nice give-and-take in the novel between its bulk, told from Smallwood's point of view, and these acerbic intervening commentaries in Fielding's voice. There is also a rather finely worked, never-consummated entanglement between Smallwood and Fielding which gives The Colony of Unrequited Dreams the feel of a nineteenth-century romance. This aspect of the book, with its attendant focus on class, social inhibitions, and character flaws that lead to inevitable circumstances, reminds me of the better work of Robertson Davies. A single secret act, only divulged at the novel's end, effectively creates Smallwood and his fate, just as a snowball, with its hidden rock, directs the life of Dunstan Ramsay in Davies' Fifth Business. Johnston also employs many of Davies' favourite narrative tricks: the European mountebank who dupes Canadians with his seeming sophistication; the use of a single trait, usually one of near madness, that sums up a character; the tendency to see Canadian (in this case Newfoundland) history somewhat narrowly, as a tribal record whose only key point of reference is British colonial history.

It is this aspect of the novel that is not only reminiscent of Davies, but of Charles Dickens and his portraits of the British tribe, its tics and ways of talking, its grotesqueries of character and its endearments. Just as nearly all of Britain read Dickens, I imagine there is something in The Colony of Unrequited Dreams for nearly all Newfoundlanders. Its reach, its depiction of outport life, its meditation on the lost possibility of nationhood, and its evocative portrait of Smallwood, present an encyclopedic view of the island.

As a mainlander, I was a bit nonplussed by the way this tribal record seems to float, free of the rest of the world's shadow-a kind of toy history under glass that can be shaken so the snow falls aslant on the wooden rowhouses of St. John's. It's true-the Americans and Canadians do come to the island during the Second World War when Allied bases are set up. And there is a belated ode to the Beothuk at the novel's end as Fielding views her own lonely demise in light of the death of a woman "known to the people of this city as Nancy April and to herself as Shawnawdithit [who] was the last Beothuk Indian." The word, Canada, readers may notice, is not even mentioned until well into the first third of the novel.

Johnston has most likely succeeded at explaining Newfoundland to Newfoundlanders. But in its strange, splendid isolation, I wonder how this explanation will sit with non-islanders, whom Johnston's book will surely reach, since its nomination for both the Giller Prize and the Governor General's Award. One of the novel's sections is tellingly titled "A Continent of Strangers", referring to Smallwood's view of the mainland as he sails from Port aux Basques to try his luck in America. "At my first sight ever of land that was not Newfoundland," Smallwood muses, "I felt a sudden surge of loneliness." How uncommon this reaction is, and opposite to the accounts we have of newcomers gathering, excited, by a ship's railing in view of Quebec, Halifax or towering Manhattan. As he nears the Canadian mainland, Smallwood considers that the boat "seemed to be getting no nearer to land, and I had the feeling that if I were to go to the other end of the boat, Newfoundland would still be visible".

On the continent that has come into view, he moans, he does "not know a single soul", and his gloom in view of the mainland suggests that he might be better off if things remained that way. This inwardness and mistrust of anything beyond the circle of tribal life seems to be Smallwood's characteristic folly. And it is this inwardness that leaves him, in many ways, as unknowable as the island he ends up ruling. It's unclear at the end of Johnston's narrative if we're meant to view Joe Smallwood as a local hero, a dupe or an average Joe with an eye for the main chance. As if aware himself of the island's ambiguous heritage, Johnston writes that perhaps "only an artist can measure up to such a place or come to terms with the impossibility of doing so."

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams ends on an elegiac note, as Fielding reviews the night in 1949 when Newfoundland entered Confederation. Enigmatically, it's the draw of tribal affinities that haunts her on this historic occasion. "We are a people," she writes, "in whose bodies old sea-seeking rivers roar with blood." 

Norman Ravvin is Professor of English at the University of New Brunswick. Most recently, he has published a collection of essays entitled A House of Words: Jewish Writing, Identity and Memory and a short story collection, Sex, Skyscrapers, and Standard Yiddish.


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