Wayne Johnston’s breakthrough epic novel The Colony of Unrequited Dreams was published in several countries and given high praise from the critics. It earned him nominations for the highest fiction prizes in Canada and was a national bestseller. His American editor said he hadn’t found such an exciting author since he discovered Don DeLillo. Johnston, who has been writing fiction for two decades, launched his next and sixth novel across the English-speaking world to great anticipation.
The Navigator of New York is set against the background of the tumultuous rivalry between Lieutenant Peary and Dr. Cook to get to the North Pole at the beginning of the 20th century. It is also the story of a young man’s quest for his origins, from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to the bustling streets of New York, and the remotest regions of the Arctic.
Devlin Stead’s father, an Arctic explorer, stops returning home at the end of his voyages and announces he is moving to New York, as “New York is to explorers what Paris is to artists”; eventually he is declared missing from an expedition. His mother meets an untimely death by drowning shortly after. Young Devlin, who barely remembers either of them, lives contently in the care of his affectionate aunt and indifferent uncle, until taunts from a bullying fellow schoolboy reveal dark truths underlying the bare facts he knows about his family. A rhyme circulated around St. John’s further isolates Devlin, always seen as an odd child who had inherited his parents’ madness and would likely meet a similar fate.
Devlin, who has always learned about his father through newspaper reports, now finds other people’s accounts of his parents are continually altering his view of his parents. Then strange secret letters start to arrive, exciting his imagination with the unanticipated notion that his life might contain the possibility of adventure. Nothing is what it once seemed. Suddenly a chance to take his own place in the world is offered, giving him courage and a newfound zest for discovery. “It was life as I would live it unless I went exploring that I dreaded.”
Caught up in the mystery of who his parents really were, and anxious to leave behind the image of ‘the Stead boy’, at the age of twenty Devlin sails, carrying only a doctor’s bag, to a New York that is bursting with frenzied energy and about to become the capital city of the globe; where every day inventors file for new patents and three thousand new strangers enter the city, a city that already looks ancient although taller buildings are constructed constantly. There he will become protégé to Dr. Cook, who is restlessly preparing for his next expedition, be introduced into the society that makes such ventures possible, and eventually accompany Cook on his epic race to reach the Pole before the arch-rival Peary. This trip will plunge Devlin into worldwide controversy -- and decide his fate.
Wayne Johnston has harnessed the scope, energy and inventiveness of the nineteenth century novel and encapsulated it in the haunting and eloquent voice of his hero. His descriptions of place, whether of the frozen Arctic wastes or the superabundant and teeming New York, have extraordinary physicality and conviction, recreating a time when the wide world seemed to be there for the taking. An extraordinary achievement that seamlessly weaves fact and fabrication, it continues the masterful reinvention of the historical novel Wayne Johnston began with The Colony of Unrequited Dreams.
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel
In 1881, Aunt Daphne said, not long after my first birthday, my father told the family that he had signed on with the Hopedale Mission, which was run by Moravians to improve the lives of Eskimos in Labrador. His plan, for the next six months, was to travel the coast of Labrador as an outport doctor. He said that no matter what, he would always be an Anglican. But it was his becoming a fool, not a Moravian, that most concerned his family.
In what little time they had before he was due to leave, they, my mother and the Steads, including Edward, tried to talk him out of it. They could not counter his reasons for going, for he gave none. He would not counter the reasons they gave for why he should stay, instead meeting their every argument with silence. It would be disgraceful, Mother Stead told him; him off most of the time like the men who worked the boats, except that they at least sent home for the upkeep of their families what little money they didn’t spend on booze. This was not how a man born into a family of standing, and married into one, should conduct himself. Sometimes, on the invitation of Mother Stead, a minister would come by and join them in dressing down my father. He endured it all in silence for a while, then excused himself and went upstairs to his study. It was as though he was already gone, already remote from us.
Perhaps the idea to become an explorer occurred to him only after he became an outport doctor. Or he might have met explorers or heard about some while travelling in Labrador. I’m not sure.
At any rate, he had been with the Hopedale Mission just over a year, was at home after his second six-month stint, when he answered an ad he saw in an American newspaper. Applying for the position of ship’s doctor on his first polar expedition, he wrote: “I have for several years now been pursuing an occupation that required arduous travel to remote places and long stretches of time away from home.” Several years, not one. He said that for would-be expeditionaries, such embellishments were commonplace.
He signed on with his first expedition in 1882. A ship from Boston bound for what he simply called “the North” put in at St. John’s to take him on.
First a missionary, now an explorer. And him with a wife and a two-year-old son, and a brother whose lifetime partner he had pledged to be. My aunt’s husband, my uncle Edward.
Father Stead had been a doctor, and it was his wish, which they obliged, that his two sons “share a shingle” with him. My father, older by a year, deferred his acceptance at Edinburgh so that he and Uncle Edward could enrol together. The brothers Stead came back the Doctors Stead in 1876. In St. John’s, Anglicans went to Anglican doctors, whose numbers swelled to nine after the return home of Edward and my father. On the family shingle were listed one-third of the Anglican doctors in the city. It read, “Dr. A. Stead, Dr. F. Stead and Dr. E. Stead, General Practitioners and Surgeons,” as if Stead was not a name, but the initials of some credential they had all earned, some society of physicians to which all of them had been admitted.
Three years after their graduation from Edinburgh, Father Stead died, but the shingle was not altered. Until his death, the two brothers had shared a waiting room, but afterwards my father moved into his father’s surgery, across the hall. From the door that had borne both brothers’ names, my father’s was removed. It was necessary to make only one small change to the green-frosted window of grandfather’s door: the intial A was removed and the initial F put in its place. F for Francis.
Even without Father Stead, the family practice thrived. When asked who their doctor was, people said “the Steads,” as if my father and Edward did everything in tandem: examinations, diagnoses, treatments. When they arrived at reception, new patients were not asked which of the brothers they wished to see -- nor, in most cases, did they arrive with their minds made up. Patients were assigned on an alternating basis. To swear by one of the brothers Stead was to swear by the other.
But with the departure of my grandfather, the Steads were no longer the Steads, and for a while the practice faltered. And no wonder, Edward said, what with one of them having gone off, apparently preferring first the company of Eskimos and Moravians to that of his own kind, and now the profession of nursemaid to a boatload of social misfits to that of doctor. If one of them would do that, what might the other do?
The family itself dropped a notch in the estimation of its peers. It was as if some latent flaw in the Stead character had shown itself at last. My father’s patients did not go across the hall to Edward. They went to other doctors. Some of Edward’s patients did likewise. He had no choice but to accept new ones from a lower social circle.
My father, in letters home, insisted that he would take up his practice again one day. He promised Edward he would pay him the rent that his premises would have fetched from another doctor, but he was unable to make good on the promise, having forsaken all income.
Rather than find another partner, rather than take down the family shingle and replace it with one that bore a stranger’s name, Edward left my father’s office, and everything in it, exactly as it was.
That door. The door of the doctor who was never in but which still bore his name. It must have seemed to his patients that Edward was caught up in some unreasonably protracted period of mourning for his absent brother whose effects he could not bear to rearrange, let alone part with. Every day that door, his brother’s name, the frosted dark green glass bearing all the letters his did except for one. He could not come or go and not be prompted by that door to think of Francis.
The expedition “to the North” he said, immeasurably improved the map of the world, adding to it three small, unpopulated islands.
Soon, my father’s life was measured out in expeditions. When he came back from one, it was weeks before he no longer had to ask what month or what day of the week it was. He would go to his office, turn upside down the stack of newspapers left there for him by Edward and read about what had happened in the world while he was absent from it. He searched out what had been written about the expeditions he had served on, the records they had set. As my father had yet to command an expedition, none of these records was attributed to him. Rarely, these records were some “first” or “farthest.” But most of them were records of endurance, feats made necessary by catastrophes, blunders, mishaps. Declaring a record was usually a way of putting the best face on failure. “First to winter north of latitude . . .” was a euphemism for “Polar party stranded for months after ship trapped in ice off Greenland.”
From the Hardcover edition.
WAYNE JOHNSTON was born and raised in the St. John's area of Newfoundland. His nationally bestselling novels include The Custodian of Paradise, The Navigator of New York and The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, which was an international bestseller and will be made into a film. Johnston is also the author of an award-winning and bestselling memoir, Baltimore's Mansion. He lives in Toronto.
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel
"Read this book simply for the force, beauty and accuracy of its images.... Wayne Johnston is the most prodigiously talented and morally complex novelist this country has produced since Mordecai Richler.... I’ll follow his writing anywhere."
—The Globe and Mail
"Johnston’s turn-of-the-last-century New York is moodily evocative, although [his] Arctic is even more engrossing and beautifully drawn…. This is a part of the world where even the Eskimos cry when winter returns…. ‘There was no time in this place where all meridians met,’ as Devlin rhapsodizes — a young man finally embarking on his terrifying, heady journey into life."
—The New York Times Book Review
"Beautiful [and] evocative…. Johnston is an accomplished storyteller, with a gift for both description and character, which he uses masterfully here."
"A captivating narrative that delves into both the noble and the seedier aspects of the human need to discover and explore…. The polar expeditions generate considerable narrative tension…. Johnston’s ability to illuminate historical settings and situations continues to grow with each book, and this powerful effort is his best to date."
"Navigator is generously stuffed with crisp writing, rich characterizations, and haunting descriptions of the harsh beauty of the Arctic…. Marginally less wonderful, then, than The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (1991). But all that means is that it’s merely better than about 90 percent of most contemporary fiction."
—Kirkus Reviews, starred
"Readers have been wondering whether Johnston could possibly top (or even equal) his splendid fictional saga of Joey Smallwood, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. The answer is a slightly qualified yes. There is the same magical blend of fact and imagination, the same compelling drive to use fiction to answer the questions left unanswered by the historical record, and the same stylistic brilliance that can turn a description of icebergs into a sensory adventure rarely achieved in the pages of a modern novel."
—Bronwyn Drainie, Quill and Quire
"This passion for exploration and being the first to reach remote, unexplored parts of the world illuminates this enthralling book…. Johnston has created a powerful novel that portrays the romance, wonderment and deprivation of Arctic exploration, while at the same time capturing the taut, emotional intensity of a lonely, misunderstood young man at the core of the story…. Johnston masterfully conjures up a cast of characters…whose tragic story has a depth and scope which propels the reader towards a fascinating conclusion."
—Karen Shewbridge, Dailies (St. John’s)
Praise for Wayne Johnston:
"The Colony of Unrequited Dreams makes Wayne Johnston one of those formidable Canadians, like Alice Munro or Margaret Atwood, that Americans simply can’t ignore."
"[A] prodigiously talented author. . . . Wayne Johnston is well on his way to becoming the most distinctive talent this country has produced since Mordecai Richler."
—The Globe and Mail
"Baltimore’s Mansion [is] a masterpiece of creative non-fiction."
"The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is a classic historical novel [that] will make a permanent mark on our literature."
—The Toronto Star
—The New York Times Book Review
"Why I love reading Wayne Johnston: The reader goes skittering through Wayne Johnston’s novels, driven inexorably forward on the force of his characters, on the power of his wit. Unlike most recent bestselling novels that are remembered for the plane flight and then promptly forgotten, Wayne’s stories have characters who move in and take up permanent residence."
"His books are beautifully written, among the funniest I’ve ever read, yet somehow at the same time among the most poignant and moving."