Joey Smallwood is poor, and insignificant, a dreamer and frequently a failure – perhaps the least likely person to rise to fame and glory – and yet that’s what he does. Presented as both fiction and biography, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams tells the story of the first half of Smallwood’s life. The true star of the novel though is not Smallwood at all, but Sheilagh Feilding, his long-time friend and the love of his life, an alcoholic journalist whose diary excerpts make up half of the narration of the story.
As Fielding and Smallwood grow together and apart, doomed lovers and professional opponents, the history of Newfoundland plays out in the backdrop. Smallwood covers a disastrous seal hunt for the local paper, and walks across the province (then colony) to unionize the rail workers. Later, he becomes a champion for confederation, leading Newfoundland to join Canada in 1949 and becoming the province’s first premier.
Smallwood is a frustrating character, and difficult to like. From all I have read, this was equally true of the man as it is of the character. Whether his actions were to the benefit of Newfoundland, or pursued for his own selfish purposes, is still debatable today. It is perhaps this frustration with his character that makes Fielding stand out so well.
Whether or not you have been to Newfoundland or know anything of its history, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams provides a thorough introduction to the land and the people. True, it threatens from time to time to fall into cliché, but then you are reminded that while fiction, the story is heavily based on historical facts and characters. The novel’s central ‘mystery’ was not much of a mystery at all, but while it could have been stronger, it did not take away from my enjoyment of the story.
Paperback: 592 pages
Publisher: Anchor (May 2, 2000)