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The Navigator of New Yorkby Wayne Johnston
Synopses & Reviews
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.
Growing up as an outcast and an orphan in nineteenth-century Newfoundland, Devlin Stead receives a letter from New York physician and explorer Dr. Frederick Cook that sends him to New York to become Cook's protg, be introduced into society, and to accompany Cook on his epic race to reach the North Pole before his arch-rival Peary. Reprint. 20,000 first printing.
Devlin Stead grows up a lonely orphan in late 19th century Newfoundland. When he begins receiving letters from the esteemed but mysterious explorer Dr. Frederick Cook, they entirely change his understanding ofwho he is and what he might become. Invited by Dr. Cook to become his apprentice, Dev eagerly heads for New York City, where he is introduced into society and joins his mentor in epic attempts to reach the North Polebefore Cook's archrival Robert Edwin Peary. When Dev is thrust into international controversy, he must master a series of revelations about his family that will determine his fate.
Inspellbinding prose, the author of the acclaimed Colony of Unrequited Dreams recreates the romance, the politics and the peril of the legendary race for the North Pole. Brilliantly rooted in history, The Navigator of New York is a fascinating exploration of the quest for discovery, and how it is remembered.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
About the Author
Wayne Johnston was born in Newfoundland in 1958 and grew up in Goulds, a small community a few miles south of St. John's. When he was a boy, he couldn’t imagine a world beyond the island. “The only outside world I ever saw was on television, and I didn’t really even believe that world existed.” People were still divided over the Confederation with Canada, which had happened only in 1949. His family had a habit of moving around to different neighbourhoods and his schooling was ‘hyper-Catholic’, traits which would feature in his autobiographical first novel.
He graduated with a BA (Hons) in English from Memorial University of Newfoundland, and worked from 1979 to 1981 as a reporter at the St. John's Daily News. Being a reporter was a crash course in how society works, but he realized he didn’t want it as a career. “I’m not that outgoing of a person and you have to be in order to be a good reporter.” He moved away from Newfoundland, firstly to Ottawa, and took up the writing of fiction full-time. In 1983 he graduated with an MA from the University of New Brunswick. His first book, The Story of Bobby O’Malley, was published shortly after, and won the W.H.Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award. He followed this success two years later with The Time of Their Lives, which won the Canadian Authors' Association Award for Most Promising Young Writer.
His third novel, The Divine Ryans, again a portrait of Irish Catholic Newfoundland, centres on a nine-year-old hockey fanatic, whose father dies and whose family goes to live with relatives who once had money but are fast declining. Time Out has called it “achingly funny, needle sharp…with heart, soul and brains”. One of Johnston’s most comic novels, it earned him the title of ‘the Roddy Doyle of Canada’. The Divine Ryans won the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Prize and has been adapted into a film starring Oscar-nominated actor Pete Postlethwaite. Johnston wrote the screenplay himself for this and also for the adaptation of his next novel, Human Amusements, also optioned for film.
The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Johnston’s fifth novel, in 1998 was shortlisted for the most prestigious fiction awards in Canada, the Governor General's Award and the Giller Prize, the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour and the Rogers Communication Writers Trust Fiction Prize; it won the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Prize and the Canadian Authors Association Award for Fiction. A glowing New York Times Book Review cover story caused the book to leap to the upper ranks of the Amazon.com top 100 selling books of the day. It has been called a ‘Dickensian romp of a novel’, which uses the career of Newfoundland's first premier to create a love story and a tragi-comic elegy to an impossible country.
Published across North America and Europe in several languages, the novel caused some controversy in Canada among those who recalled the real Joey Smallwood, a man who was hated by many Newfoundlanders, including Johnston’s own family, for bringing the island into Canada. Although his strongly anti-confederate family could barely bring themselves to mention Smallwood’s name, Johnston read a biography of the politician when he was 14.
Johnston considered carefully the different ways of establishing ‘fictional/historical plausibility’ in the novel. Re-reading Don Delillo's novel Libra, he observed how “Delillo gave himself the freedom to invent scenes, incidents, conversations as long as they seemed plausible within the fictional world that he created.” He also considered Salman Rushdie’s Midnight's Children, where, in spite of the magic realism, India still gains independence in 1948, and political figures are elected or assassinated under the same circumstances as their real-life counterparts. He decided he 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.”
In 1999 he published Baltimore's Mansion, his first non-fiction book, a family memoir that also became a national bestseller and won the inaugural Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. Johnston uses the stories of his own childhood and his father and grandfather to cast light on Newfoundland’s struggle over relinquishing independence in 1949. A National Post reviewer concluded that it was a ‘non-fiction novel’ drawing on all Johnston’s narrative powers to “shape the materials of real life into a work of astonishing beauty and power”. In another review, Quill and Quire said “I began to smell the smells, hear the lilt, and experience a sense of the fierce attachment Newfoundlanders feel to their home province no matter where they live,” commenting that Newfoundland geography, history and culture permeates Johnston’s books.
Johnston has lived in Toronto since 1989, although he has to date written exclusively about Newfoundland. “I couldn't write about the island while I was there,” he says. “Life was too immediate. I was too inundated by the place and its details. I'd write about something and see it when I walked across the street the next day.” A “benign homesickness” has become a kind of fuel for writing about the island. He talks of Newfoundland as being too “overwhelmingly beautiful and substantial” to capture. To write with any kind of objectivity, "I need distance to get that sense of what is important and what is significant and what is not."
From the Hardcover edition.
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