By: Stella Leventoyannis-Harvey
The Navigator of New York
By: Wayne Johnston
Alfred A. Knopf Canada
The Navigator of New York by Wayne Johnston is a simple tale of a boy's search for his past and a place to belong. But, the straightforward theme is where the simplicity ends. Detailed historical events of the late 19th century's preoccupation with polar expeditions and lavish lifestyles form the rich textured backdrop and the catalyst for telling Devlin Stead's story, a young boy orphaned by the accidental drowning of his mother and the later disappearance of his father. The images described—in a language reflective of the late 19th century—place the reader back in a time when being poor equaled no options (present or future), secrecy was the only form of communication and honor was something you showed, but not practiced. The book has the look and feel of a historical epic because of Johnston's ability to weave fact with fiction. It is, however, his descriptions of the human condition in its worst and best forms that makes this book difficult to put down.
The story begins in 1881, not long after Devlin's first birthday. It is at this time that Devlin's father takes on missionary work that will take him away from St. Johns to the northern reaches of Labrador. Although his family tries to convince him not to go, Dr. Francis Stead holds fast. "It's as though he was already gone, already remote from us." Mission after mission, Francis Stead finds the means to stay away from home. During his absence, Amelia Stead, wife of Francis and mother of Devlin accidentally drowns off Signal Hill. Although Francis Stead is advised, he chooses to join Lieutenant Peary on an attempt to reach the North Pole, rejecting his responsibilities to Devlin who goes to live with his Aunt Daphne and Uncle Edward. They become his legal guardians in 1888. Although he develops a close relationship with his aunt, Devlin is bullied at school and taunted by rumors that his mother drowned herself because her husband left her for northern exploration. When his father disappears on the Peary expedition, Devlin begins to question his peculiar lineage. "There was in his tone the suggestion that the odd manner of my father's death was somehow in keeping with the odd manner of my mother's. This, I soon sensed, was the general view: that my father's death was final confirmation of the oddness of Dr. Francis Stead and his wife, Amelia."
Devlin keeps to himself except for the relationship he builds with his aunt. She is the mother he can no longer remember. And for Daphne, Devlin is the son she never had and her escape from her husband, Edward. Life changes for Devlin when he receives a letter through his Uncle Edward. The letter is from Dr. Cook, who served with Devlin's father on the Peary mission. Although, Edward passes the letters secretly to Devlin he knows nothing of their contents. The communication between Devlin and Dr. Cook is one way. The doctor will not allow Devlin to write. Through the letters we are given insight into Devlin's past and his connection with Dr. Cook. Years pass and Devlin makes his way to New York to meet Dr. Cook. Their adventures together in New York and later in the farthest reaches of the Artic are beautifully described. The reader feels the hot, bustling excitement of New York at the turn of the century as though standing at the dock watching the immigrants flow off the ships. Equally, the bleak cold nothingness of the Artic, the relentless wind and the blackness of a northern winter day evoke that same feeling of loneliness we've all felt and can never forget.
The story unfolds slowly. Secret by secret is revealed until Devlin realizes his history. It is only when he discovers and accepts his past, that Devlin moves forward to define his life on his own terms. "I told Kristine when she came back to Manhattan. I was worried that my strange story of the letters from Dr. Cook...would put her off. I told her everything, just as I had told Lily everything. ...I was determined that, between us, there would be no secrets." While tragedy begins this story, resilience and hope mark it's making and conclusion. Again, a fine read at the hands of a master writer.
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