“Obsession Trilogy”: The Three Lives of Wayne Johnston

Having become more and more an avid fan of prolific Newfoundland author, Wayne Johnston, I admit I arrived disappointedly late to the scene when it came to his 1998 work, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. A fictional account based on the real-life figure Joseph Smallwood who rose to become Newfoundland’s first premier and perhaps more famously as the man many believe responsible for the referendum, which brought the province into Canada’s Confederation fold in 1949.

In less thoughtful and capable hands, Smallwood’s tale would have been a trudging , dense endeavour for readers to gnaw at. Thankfully, it is the opposite. Colony first serves the audience with a portrait of Smallwood as a boy, bespectacled and unassuming with a skeletally frail physique he is never able to outgrow in his life. He is the son to Charlie Smallwood, the impoverished town drunk and resident joke of St. John’s. Residing in the slumps of the city commonly referred to as “The Brow,” young Joe is vexed by his father’s failures; his daily inebriated rants railing against the unfair injustices imposed upon the people of a land so rich in possibilities speak as the anthem to Johnston’s work; it is a recurrent theme and one that gets increasingly powerful and impossible to dismiss. Poor Charlie just cannot get his act together, his unending foray into alcoholism forces his wife Minnie May to carry the weight of a growing and poor family. It is the first of many allegories we are given to the island of Newfoundland; a “country” under tightly tethered to condescending leash of the British Empire. While (relatively new) independent Canada exists just far enough away to be semi-fantastical world away, Newfoundland is commonly treated as a problem child by its imperial fathers — despite numerous historical examples that the inept British mishandling is culpable for its colony’s dire financial and economic state.

The British Influence sets upon young Joe Smallwood early in life is a force omnipresent throughout the novel’s entirety. Sent to the all boy’s school, Bishop Feild, which operated by British headmasters, is another facet in which to keep the common Newfoundlander in check. The school operates, largely, as a popularity contest in which the richest, promising, and dare I say, most British-esque students are plucked and groomed into success. As Smallwood quickly gleans, reputation is king: status trumps hard work and academic ability. The son of a drunk is left in the dust. It is not until an olive branch is extended by the wily, charismatic school darling, David Prowse do Smallwood’s fortune briefly reverse, fostering early in life an inherent, unaddressed, dependence on power.

The assertion has been made by others who did not wait twenty years to read this book that the fictional supporting character Sheilagh Fielding is a centrifugal glue binding together not only The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, but also the 2006 novel, The Custodian of Paradise, in which her character takes centre stage, and last year’s thriller addition, 2017’s First Snow, Last Light. Whereas her presence in First Snow and Colony are less Fielding-centric, her gravitational allure provide a major driving force for the future actions of both major protagonists, Joseph Smallwood and Ned Vatcher, respectively. (I will discuss more about the Vatcher’s obsession in the future.) Coupled with the fact that the mysterious Fielding meets both male figures early in their lives further infuses in them a driving obsession to make a name for themselves and show Fielding how much they are truly capable of.

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The relationship between Smallwood and Fielding, though once strong, becomes estranged to the point where the price of their own personal secrets cause their sporadic interactions to become wrought by jealousy, resentment, and the occasional, captivating moments of naked, emotional disarmament. Fielding, one of the best-crafted, unique figures in Canadian Literature is a whole universe in herself. The highlights of her struggle, further fleshed out in The Custodian of Paradise, are alluded to and revealed here in poignantly

heartbreaking fashion. She is a mountain betrayed too many times to allow it to happen again so easily. Johnston’s portrayal of her as steely, insular Newfoundland is masterful. This unwavering trait clashes mightily with Smallwood, who as the story progresses is thrust further and further upon the shoulders of men far more charismatic and connected than he. The timing for both is unfortunate. As Smallwood begins his ascent into the light of the public eye, Fielding shrinks away, embracing the cold obscurity and the lonely hermitage that comes with it. Ships in the night.

Despite attempts to rekindle and recapture an ember of long-lasting respect, neither Fielding and Smallwood can shake the fact that has existed since the novel’s onset: Smallwood is one who, ignored and underestimated for so long, measures success by the positive perspectives in those he looks up to. Following his fallout with Prowse, Smallwood drifts trying to become the self-made political force he believes himself to be. It is not until he abandons his hard-fought socialist ideology and aligns himself with the out of touch, entitled politician Richard Squires do his fortunes moderately reverse. Smallwood still works just as hard, as exemplified by his legendary solo walk across Newfoundland, but the carrot of power is constantly being dangled in front of him the whole way. As inspiring as his ambition is, the heartbreak upon the realization that so many see him merely as an expendable pawn is all-encompassing. The reclusive, penitent Fielding harbours no such feeling for validation. Both characters are irreconcilable Newfoundland archetypes that reciprocal, unquestioned love for the two will always be unrequited.

Despite the sometimes cumbersome length of his works, Johnston managed to create genuine feelings of warmth in places too cold and forgotten to foster life. Admirable in Johnston, and Smallwood by extension, is the fascination and respect of self-supporting outposts, which even as he exploits them for votes and signatures, are built upon endurance, existing in privately peaceful worlds known only to themselves. Visceral, compelling, and completely human, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is a book I wish I had read earlier in life. And rest assured, even if you unknowingly read the books out of order like I did (2, 3, 1), no aspects of Johnston’s work will be ruined. Not once did the overreaching arc ever feel disjointed, but rather as I read, I felt satisfied as every missing piece interlocked softly into place.


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