Written with extraordinary literary grace, Smith’s (The Beautiful Miscellaneous, 2007, etc.) third novel gleams as a gem of evocative historical fiction.
Owen Graves, orphaned at 13, is the son of a Chicago demolition expert, a youngster enthralled by the artifacts gleaned from wreckage as he worked alongside his father. As the 20th century nears, young Owen is freed from an orphanage but unsure of his future. His love for relics of the past inspires a voyage to Melanesia, where he trades for primitive art and weapons. His success brings him to the attention of Hale Gray, president of an insurance company. Having constructed the tallest skyscraper in Chicago, Gray is ready to underwrite a trading voyage. He wants to decorate the headquarters with South Sea treasures, as a sales tool and as a comeuppance to his neighbor, the retailer Marshall Field, sponsor of the new Field Museum. Owen sees the expedition as a way to secure his future, but there are problems. Owen has fallen in love with Adelaide Cummings, daughter of a wealthy Bostonian, and Gray wants Owen to return with natives to be exhibited. This troubles Owen’s instinctual ethics, and he knows importing natives for exhibit will fracture his relationship with Adelaide, a woman deeply involved with charity work at Hull House. Another complication is Gray’s insistence that his unstable son Jethro, a dilettante naturalist, accompany the trader. Smith expands the narrative to include Argus Niu and his sister, Malini, siblings from an island near New Guinea. Argus failed as a warrior and was sent to work as a houseboy for a Presbyterian missionary. Malini married into another tribe but was widowed. Smith’s dexterity in limning out Argus and Malini is masterful, and that skill extends to the expedition ship’s captain, its sailors and the milieu of sailing life, island culture abraded by modernity and bustling streets of 1890s Chicago.
Beautifully researched and ripe with symbolism—an enthralling narrative peopled by characters both exotic and real.