Wayne Johnston’s fictional histories

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.

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.

allenh@telus.net

 

 

Just Posted

The City of Penticton is beginning plans to revitalize its north entrance on Highway 97. (Jesse Day - Western News)
Penticton reviewing ideas on how to make the city’s north gateway more vibrant

The city has plans to redevelop the area into a welcoming and attractive entrance

People decided to tag Skaha Bluffs rocks which the Ministry has to go in and now clean up. (Facebook)
Bluffs at popular Penticton rock climbing park defaced

Ministry of Environment is going to clean it up

A portion of the Kettle Valley Railway Trail near Naramata will be closed temporarily for upgrade work, including paving. (John Arendt - Summerland Review)
Upgrades plannned for trail near Naramata

Surface improvement work will mean temporary trail closure

Okanagan Lake (File photo)
Thompson-Okanagan ready to welcome back tourists

The Thompson-Okanagan Tourism Association expects this summer to be a busy one

Skaha Bluffs climbing spots. (Monique Tamminga)
New parking lot and picnic area coming to Penticton’s Skaha Bluffs

The city will turn the access point at Crow Place into a parking and picnic area

Maxwell Johnson is seen in Bella Bella, B.C., in an undated photo. The Indigenous man from British Columbia has filed complaints with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal and the Canadian Human Rights Commission after he and his granddaughter were handcuffed when they tried to open a bank account. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Heiltsuk Nation, Damien Gillis, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
VIDEO: Chiefs join human rights case of Indigenous man handcuffed by police in B.C. bank

Maxwell Johnson said he wants change, not just words, from Vancouver police

Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Chief Rosanne Casimir stands outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School after speaking to reporters, in Kamloops, B.C., on Friday, June 4, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Kamloops chief says more unmarked graves will be found across Canada

Chief Rosanne Casimir told a virtual news conference the nation expects to release a report at the end of June

Vernon Courthouse. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
Sentencing delayed in North Okanagan child pornography case

Man who pleaded guilty to possessing child pornography will have new sentence date fixed next week

A woman wears a vaccinated sticker after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. ranks among highest in world in COVID-19 first-dose shots: health officials

More than 76% of eligible people have received their 1st shot

A screenshot of the First Peoples Cultural Councils First Peoples’ Map. (First Peoples Cultural Council)
Online resource blends B.C.-Alberta’s Indigenous languages, art and culture

Advisor says initiative supports the urgent need to preserve Indigenous languages

An artists conception of the new terminal building at the Pitt Meadows Regional Airport.
Air travel taking off in B.C., but lack of traffic controllers a sky-high concern

There will be demand for more air traffic controllers: Miller

Canadian Armed Forces experts are on their way to North Vancouver after a local homeowner expressed worry about a military artifact he recently purchased. (Twitter DNV Fire and Rescue)
Military called in to deal with antique ‘shell’ at North Vancouver home

‘The person somehow purchased a bombshell innocently believing it was an out-of-commission military artifact’

Phil McLachlan/(Black Press Media
Man shot at Kamloops shopping centre

The man is believed to be in stable condition

Most Read