By Wayne Johnston
I can be pretty ignorant about certain things in history and politics, as I had no idea the two central characters in TNoNY were actually based on real-life turn-of-the-century explorers until after I had finished the novel!
The longstanding competition between Admiral Robert E. Peary and Dr. Frederick A. Cook came to a head in 1909 when both claimed to be the first man to reach the North Pole, setting off “the dispute of the century.” Johnston fleshes out the lives of these fascinating characters and what drove them to become bitter rivals. He also inserts fictional characters into the narrative, including the hero and narrator Devlin Stead, a young man hailing from Newfoundland who journeys to New York City to become Dr. Cook’s protégé.
I guess if one is a novelist who specializes in writing about Newfoundland and harbors a love for early arctic exploration and New York history, you’d figure out a way to combine all these aspects into a historical epic. And this is exactly what Johnston does – with mixed success. For one thing, Cook never had a son, legitimate or otherwise. According to one reviewer:
“Would we countenance such a story about, say, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson? One in which the author invents an illegitimate son for Adams, who is not only plays a part in all of his father’s most momentous triumphs and failures, but who is also a pivotal figure in the feud between the two men? Who saves Jefferson’s life, and whose own story proves the true unsavoriness of Jefferson’s character? If the author intended to stray so far from the historical prototypes, comes the inevitable question, why not simply invent the entire story in the first place?
Yet Johnston gets away with it, I think, thanks to the strength of his fictional melodrama.”
Indeed the aspects of melodrama were strong. Reading The Navigator of New York was like experiencing a well-crafted TV mini-series, as opposed to a PG-13 or R-rated period drama. Johnston’s descriptions of place have physicality and conviction - whether it’s the vast Arctic landscape or the teeming metropolis of New York - his elegant passages transports you back in time. Yet for me, in the end it was just romanticized fiction without any real edge. Enjoyable enough to read, but not ultimately very memorable.