n The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, I have not tried, as a biographer would, to portray the "real" Joe Smallwood, Newfoundland's first premier, to "capture" him, to "get him down on paper."
To do so would be impossible, not because Smallwood was larger than life or because he has not been dead long enough to be crammed between the covers of a book. It is because the life of any real person is too large and too complex to be so contained.
The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is not biography or history, it is a novel, fiction, a work of the imagination in part inspired by historical events and set in what Michael Ondaatje calls "historical time."
My intention in writing The Colony of Unrequited Dreams was to fashion out of the formless infinitude of "facts" about Smallwood and Newfoundland a story, a novel, a work of art that would express a felt, emotional truth that an adherence to an often untrustworthy and inevitably incomplete historical record would have made impossible.
Characters in a book like Colony should be judged in the context of fiction, not according to what degree they conform, or seem to conform, to their historical counterparts.
Fiction like The Colony of Unrequited Dreams does not pursue and is not based upon the kind of truth pursued by biographers and historians. Adherence to the "facts" will not lead you safely through the labyrinthine pathways of the human heart.
My book is not primarily about Smallwood as a maker of history. It is about the human character and human emotions inherent in and often masked by historical events and by the written record we call "history." And human character and emotion can only be apprehended and conveyed by the imagination.
There are probably an infinite number of ways that fictional/historical plausibility can be established in a novel. But it was not until I had read several times Don Delillo's novel Libra that I came to an understanding of how I would establish mine.
Like all novels that successfully wring variations on history, Libra sets its own rules but follows them faithfully. Delillo gave himself the freedom to invent scenes, incidents, conversations as long as they seemed plausible within the fictional world that he created. In Libra, a lot of things that may not have happened could have happened. The gaps in the historical record of Kennedy's assassination are filled in a way that could be accurate-- and this is the rule that Delillo pledges to the reader that he will not break.
Other successful historical novels follow different rules, but follow them they do. We are not meant to believe that the incidents in D.M. Thomas's The White Hotel happened, or even that they could have happened. Rather, the premise of that novel is: If certain things which we know did not happen had happened, what chain of events might they have set into motion. Once that premise is established, Thomas remains faithful to it.
Even Salman Rushdie, in the magic realist world that he creates in Midnight's Children, sets for himself and faithfully follows certain guidelines for treating historical events. His characters can read minds, transport themselves through space and time by the power of thought, but India still gains independence in 1948 as the real India did, and political figures are elected or assassinated under the same circumstances as their real-life counterparts.
When I began to write The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, I decided I would not change or omit anything that was publicly known. I would fill in the historical record in a way that could have been true, and flesh out and dramatize events that, though publicly known, were not recorded in detail. Most importantly, I would invent for Smallwood a lover/nemesis (Sheilagh Fielding) who could have existed (but didn't) and wove her and Smallwood's story into the history of Newfoundland. This would be my plausibility contract with the reader and I would stick to it.
But that still left me with one problem that, for a while, seemed insurmountable. How could I include in the book the mass of knowledge a reader would need about the history of Newfoundland in order to understand and appreciate the context in which the narrative of The Colony of Unrequited Dreams unfolds. Don Delillo, Salman Rushdie, D.M. Thomas could all expect their readers to have at least a basic knowledge of the historical events and setting of their books. Writing about Newfoundland, I had no such expectation. I foresaw protracted digressions from the narrative, story-stopping asides that would frustrate the reader. I considered a lengthy foreword, a lengthy afterword. Neither seemed even remotely acceptable. What to do.
The answer occurred to me the way such answers always do-seemingly from out of nowhere. One of my characters would write a history of Newfoundland from its discovery by John Cabot in 1497 until the mid-twentieth century when Newfoundland the country ceased to be. And so it was that Sheilagh Fielding's Condensed History of Newfoundland came to be. One and two page chapters of Fielding's ironic, satirical history are inserted between chapters of the narrative. Though the whole history is barely thirty pages long, the reader, by the end of the book, knows as much about Newfoundland history as most Newfoundlanders do.
The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is a dramatic rendering of the spirit of a people and a place, an island that in 1948 came within a hair's breadth of achieving nationhood and that it still longs for to this day. It was written in the belief that in this story of Newfoundland, this love story whose two main players are characters inspired by Joe Smallwood and the wholly imaginary Sheilagh Fielding, readers everywhere would see reflected their own attempts to crawl out from underneath the avalanche of history with their human individuality intact.
Its goal is not factual accuracy but narrative and fictional plausibility. It shares that goal with writers from Homer to Shakespeare to Dickens, Delillo and Ondaatje. It was written, not just for Newfoundlanders or Canadians, but for people everywhere who are willing to approach books with open minds and open hearts.
Copyright © 1999 Wayne Johnston.