Academic journal article Newfoundland and Labrador Studies

Riots, Referendums, and Raging Fires: Revisiting History in Recent Newfoundland Fiction

Academic journal article Newfoundland and Labrador Studies

Riots, Referendums, and Raging Fires: Revisiting History in Recent Newfoundland Fiction

Article excerpt

The Badger Riot by J.A. Ricketts. Flanker Press, 2008. ISBN: 978-1-89731732-7

The Flannigans by M.T. Dohaney. Flanker Press, 2007. ISBN: 978-1-89731706-8

1892 by Paul Butler. Flanker Press, 2008. ISBN: 978-1-897317-28-0

MUCH INK HAS BEEN spent over the past ten years discussing the fictionalization of history in Newfoundland writing, especially historical events such as Confederation and figures such as J.R. Smallwood. No clash between fiction and history has resounded more loudly than the critical responses to Wayne Johnston's much-celebrated novel The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (1998), which famously--or notoriously, depending on your viewpoint--re-tells the story of Smallwood's life. Unsatisfied with Johnston's free interpretation of Newfoundland history, Rex Murphy criticized the novel in a review published in the Globe and Mail, complaining that the author's "fictional ventriloquism" resulted in a mere "pastework substitute" for Joey Smallwood, and the former Premier became an entity that was actually "smaller and more wooden" (D15). Stuart Pierson's review of the novel in Newfoundland Studies offered a substantial list of historical inaccuracies and anachronisms in Johnston's novel, and concluded that historical fiction "must, if it is to last and be re-read, illuminate the historical record. It must be superior history" (292). Pierson also opined that the sequences in which Johnston is clearly diverging from the historical record and giving free reign to his inventive powers contribute to, rather than assuages, one thing the book complains about: that the history of this place has not been taken seriously enough (293). Johnston's subsequent response to Murphy also addresses some of Pierson's concerns. As Johnston states, his "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 adherence to an often untrustworthy and inevitably incomplete historical record would have made impossible" (D1). The debate here is clearly over two different kinds of "truth": a historical truth and an "emotional" truth. The reality is that, as Johnston emphasizes, the actual "facts" are often unreliable. Surely the two truths can be combined, but Johnston's point is that strict reliance on the historical record can rob a narrative of its emotional poignancy. So if, for example, Johnston does situate his "Bishop's Feild College" "at the corner of King's Road and Colonial Street" (a corner that does not actually exist in St. John's), it could be countered that there is "a certain symbolic resonance in the conjunction of 'King's' and 'Colonial'" (Mathews 5). Additionally, in regards to one of Pierson's specific complaints, it is Joey Smallwood who laments that Newfoundland has not been "taken seriously enough"; Sheilagh Fielding, on the other hand, writes her own "Condensed History" as a parody of the previous attempts to capture Newfoundland in an official and, more specifically, colonial History--that by the eminent Victorian historian, D.W. Prowse. For this reason, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams should not be viewed strictly as "historical fiction" but perhaps as a species of "historiographic metafiction," a term Alexander MacLeod takes from Linda Hutcheon to denote the postmodern technique of composing narratives that deliberately depart from the established historical or biographical record (MacLeod 69).

Three recent works of Newfoundland fiction might also be interpreted in light of this fiction/history debate. J.A. Ricketts's The Badger Riot explores the famous International Woodworkers of America (IWA) strike and resulting riot that took place in Badger in 1959. M.T. Dohaney's The Flannigans concerns the always volatile subject of Confederation in 1949 through the perspective of one family. Finally, Paul Butler's 1892 deals with one of the great fires in the nineteenth century that destroyed a large portion of the city of St. …

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