Summary and book reviews of The Navigator of New York by Wayne Johnston

The Navigator of New York

by Wayne Johnston

The Navigator of New York
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2002, 486 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2003, 496 pages

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Book Summary

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; 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.

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.

Devlin Stead's father, an Arctic explorer, stops returning home at the end of his voyages and announces he is moving to New York, as "New York is to explorers what Paris is to artists"; eventually he is declared missing from an expedition. His mother meets an untimely death by drowning shortly after. Young Devlin, who barely remembers either of them, lives contently in the care of his affectionate aunt and indifferent uncle, until taunts from a bullying fellow schoolboy reveal dark truths underlying the bare facts he knows about his family. A rhyme circulated around St. John's further isolates Devlin, always seen as an odd child who had inherited his parents' madness and would likely meet a similar fate.

Devlin, who has always learned about his father through newspaper reports, now finds other people's accounts of his parents are continually altering his view of his parents. Then strange secret letters start to arrive, exciting his imagination with the unanticipated notion that his life might contain the possibility of adventure. Nothing is what it once seemed. Suddenly a chance to take his own place in the world is offered, giving him courage and a newfound zest for discovery. "It was life as I would live it unless I went exploring that I dreaded."

Caught up in the mystery of who his parents really were, and anxious to leave behind the image of ‘the Stead boy', at the age of twenty Devlin sails, carrying only a doctor's bag, to a New York that is bursting with frenzied energy and about to become the capital city of the globe; where every day inventors file for new patents and three thousand new strangers enter the city, a city that already looks ancient although taller buildings are constructed constantly. There he will become protégé to Dr. Cook, who is restlessly preparing for his next expedition, be introduced into the society that makes such ventures possible, and eventually accompany Cook on his epic race to reach the Pole before the arch-rival Peary. This trip will plunge Devlin into worldwide controversy -- and decide his fate.

Wayne Johnston has harnessed the scope, energy and inventiveness of the nineteenth century novel and encapsulated it in the haunting and eloquent voice of his hero. His descriptions of place, whether of the frozen Arctic wastes or the superabundant and teeming New York, have extraordinary physicality and conviction, recreating a time when the wide world seemed to be there for the taking. An extraordinary achievement that seamlessly weaves fact and fabrication, it continues the masterful reinvention of the historical novel Wayne Johnston began with The Colony of Unrequited Dreams.

Chapter One

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...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Johnston has said that he finds it hard to read books in which there's absolutely no humour. How does humour contribute to the character of Devlin?

  2. The Navigator of New York is filled with descriptions of places; which scene or setting struck you the most powerfully, and why?

  3. What role do letters and lies play in The Navigator of New York?
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Reviews

Media Reviews

The New York Times Book Review

Johnston's turn-of-the-last-century New York is moodily evocative, although [his] Arctic is even more engrossing and beautifully drawn…. This is a part of the world where even the Eskimos cry when winter returns…. ‘There was no time in this place where all meridians met,' as Devlin rhapsodizes -- a young man finally embarking on his terrifying, heady journey into life.

Quill and Quire - Bronwyn Drainie

Readers have been wondering whether Johnston could possibly top (or even equal) his splendid fictional saga of Joey Smallwood, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. The answer is a slightly qualified yes. There is the same magical blend of fact and imagination, the same compelling drive to use fiction to answer the questions left unanswered by the historical record, and the same stylistic brilliance that can turn a description of icebergs into a sensory adventure rarely achieved in the pages of a modern novel.

Globe and Mail

[A] prodigiously talented author. . . . Wayne Johnston is well on his way to becoming the most distinctive talent this country has produced since Mordecai Richler.

Publishers Weekly

Johnston 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.

Library Journal - Judith Kicinski

The thrill of polar exploration, the beauty and terror of glaciers, and the horror of the long Arctic nights are splendidly evoked. The secrets of Devlin's parents are slowly revealed, adding intrigue and suspense to the last two-thirds of the book. For all collections of serious fiction.

Kirkus Reviews

Marginally less wonderful, then The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (1999). But all that means is that it's merely better than about 90 percent of most contemporary fiction. Johnston is a great novelist in the making.

Booklist

Beautiful [and] evocative…. Johnston is an accomplished storyteller, with a gift for both description and character, which he uses masterfully here.

Reader Reviews

judith palmer blin

wonderful prose
I thoroughly enjoy Johnston's wonderful rolling prose and unique viewpoints and descriptions.

Alex

Very compelling story. Interesting style.

Naugler

Wayne Johnston made an amazing novel with The Navigator of New York. This novel takes hitstory and adds a fictionalized story to the blend to make it an incredible read.

M. Birtch

A great novel. The descriptions of turn of the century New York were amazing. Not as good as Baltimores mansion or The Colony of Unrequited dreams, but still a wonderful read.

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