A haunting tale of quiet courage and friendship in the face of racism, corruption and cruelty that runs from the Battle of Antietam to a remote fishing village in British Columbia.
Anson Baird, an assistant surgeon in the Union Army tending to soldiers wounded in America’s bloodiest day of battle, befriends an escaped, light-skinned slave. Suspecting the escapee to be on the run after murdering his sadistic overseer, Baird gives him the identity of a dead Union soldier, William Dare. The story is rife with the horrors of the Civil War and slavery: Doctors stack soldiers’ amputated arms and legs like cordwood; a hired hand mercilessly whips a naked, pregnant slave; blacks, whites, Chinese and Native Americans die brutally. Bowling probes the deadly persistent affliction of American racism with a steady, sensitive hand, as Dare’s contemporaries accept, reject, torture or conspire against him based on their assessment of whether he’s white or black. Following the Civil War scenes of slaughter and brutality, the book skips nearly 20 years ahead and thousands of miles west to the Fraser River in Canada, where Dare has established himself as the successful owner of a salmon cannery “in a world indifferent and even hostile to virtue.” Yet the scourge of racism stays with him like the brand on his cheek that he tries to conceal. When the competing, corrupt cannery owners play the race card against him in an effort to drive him out of business, Dare summons his old friend Baird and fights back, overcoming his oppressors only “to find nothing in life but deceit and shadows” and “something that couldn’t be killed even if he used all his strength.” Bowling has crafted a powerful, beautiful, tragic and sometimes eerie novel marred only by the clumsiness of a few bit players’ stilted dialects: a Scot’s “dinnas” become grating after a while, and a Swede’s phlegmatic utterances sound out of place and awkward. Other than those faint quibbles, though, the story makes for a searing yet subtle treatment of racism, greed, good and evil.
A dynamic, dazzling yarn.