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.
The race to get to the North Pole frames a young explorer's effort to unearth his family history in Johnston's latest, a captivating narrative that delves into both the noble and the seedier aspects of the human need to discover and explore. Devlin Stead is the orphaned protagonist raised by his aunt and uncle in Newfoundland after his physician father dies in a polar expedition under the aegis of Robert Edwin Peary and Dr. Frederick Cook. The boy's sheltered existence is shattered when he receives a series of letters from Cook that reveal the explorer-who had committed an indiscretion with Devlin's mother-to be the boy's real father. Cook invites Devlin to New York, where he takes him under his wing and makes him his assistant. Their strange relationship culminates when father and son journey to Greenland to rescue the stubborn Peary, who has become stranded while trying to reach the pole and refuses to give up and return. Devlin then becomes deeply involved in Cook's effort to beat Peary to the pole, participating in Cook's infamous 1908 attempt that was decried as a hoax. Johnston (The Colony of Unrequited Dreams; Baltimore's Mansion, etc.) occasionally gets overly caught up in the details of Devlin's murky personal history yet delivers a satisfying character study, and the polar explorations generate considerable narrative tension when the family subplot flattens out. Johnston's ability to illuminate historical settings and situations continues to grow with each book, and this powerful effort is his best to date. (Oct.) Forecast: The Colony of Unrequited Dreams was heralded as a stellar example of the Newfoundland novel-impressive, considering the quality of the offerings in that small but flourishing subgenre. The Navigator of New York has the potential to bump Johnston up a notch, so long as readers and reviewers don't tire of the scenery. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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September 08, 2003
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Excerpt from The Navigator of New York by Wayne Johnston
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.