While typing up this review, my kids gathered around and wondered what I was doing. When I explained that I was writing about a famous Canadian author who takes real people and creates fictional life stories around them, my son was outraged. And he’s not alone. Many readers, especially Newfoundlanders, take exception to the way Wayne Johnston messes with the truth.
Johnston is best known for his fictional memoir, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, which took liberties with the life of Newfoundland premier Joey Smallwood. In his subsequent book, Navigator of New York, Johnston fictionalized the life of polar explorer Robert Peary.
Despite the criticism, Johnston is unapologetic about the way he re-imagines lives. It’s not historical fiction, he says. It’s fictional history. Whether you agree with him or not, there is no denying that Johnston is a powerful, hilarious and insightful writer.
In his latest book, A World Elsewhere, Johnston fictionalizes the life of George Vanderbilt. Born almost 150 years ago into the wealthiest family in America, George moved to North Carolina to build himself America’s largest mansion, Biltmore. There, living as an intellectual eccentric, he filled his house with great works of art and entertained hundreds of famous guests such as Henry James and Edith Wharton.
By chance, Johnston discovered the Biltmore mansion while touring the Carolina countryside. He was intrigued enough to want to write a story, but relatively little was known about George Vanderbilt the man. Johnston let his imagination run wild, and A World Elsewhere became even less fact and more fiction than his previous books.
In the novel, two students meet at Princeton University. Landish Druken is the son of a Newfoundland sealer and Vanderluyden, the son of an American railway magnate. After a mishap at university, the friends don’t cross paths until years later, when Landish becomes a guest at Vanderland, the renamed Biltmore mansion.
I enjoyed the playful language and copious puns in this book, but I was left feeling dissatisfied. I either wanted a story about George Vanderbilt, using his real name and as many real events from his life as could be uncovered, or for the book to be entirely a work of fiction. As it stands, this is a great novel, but I felt like I was caught in a world in between, rather than a world elsewhere.
A new book from Johnston is always an event worth noting, and every Canadian should read at least one of his books. That said, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is still, to my mind, Johnston’s masterpiece.
Heather Allen is a writer and reader who lives in Penticton.