“In the waning years of the nineteenth century there was a hunger for tribal artifacts, spawning collecting voyages from museums and collectors around the globe. In 1897, one such collector, a Chicago insurance magnate, sponsors an expedition into the South Seas to commemorate the completion of his company’s new skyscraper – the world’s tallest building. The ship is to bring back an array of Melanesian weaponry and handicrafts, but also several natives related by blood.
Caught up in this scheme are two orphans – Owen Graves, an itinerant trader from Chicago’s South Side who has recently proposed to the girl he must leave behind, and Argus Niu, a mission houseboy in the New Hebrides who longs to be reunited with his sister. At the cusp of the twentieth century, the expedition forces a collision course between the tribal and the civilized, between two young men plagued by their respective and haunting pasts.”
Thoughts: “Greed is good.” Even though this famous phrase was first vocalized in a movie made in the 1980s, this phrase has dictated the American business model for generations. The only difference is that this greed that greases the wheels of the economy takes different forms as one progresses through history. At the turn of the century, greed took the form of height and artifacts. Dominic Smith’s Bright and Distant Shores discusses at length the greed for each that gripped the country and specifically Chicago in the late 1890s. It provides a prosaic and sound warning against the greed which causes people to disregard the safety and health of others in order to be ranked among the upper echelons of society and within a global economy.
This is not a story where the good guy wins everything and lives happily ever after. One really could describe Bright and Distant Shores as the antithesis of or, more accurately, the reality behind the much-adored American dream. In true American dream fashion, Owen Graves and Argus Niu are poor and downtrodden. Graves has been forced to make ends meet since the untimely death of his father. He wants to win the girl but needs money to do so. Niu is maligned by whites because he is a native and by his tribesmen for ingratiating himself with the whites; it is the ultimate no-win situation. By ignoring their individual upbringings, those cherished lessons taught to them by their fathers, each manages to eke out some facsimile of success. That success, however, comes with a price and more importantly does not guarantee happiness.
Bright and Distant Shores is also a tale of two stories. On the one hand, the reader gets an in-depth look at trading during the turn of the century. On the other hand, the reader gets an in-depth look at Chicago and life among the fabulously wealthy and powerful as well as the working echelons of the city. Unfortunately, the city imagery and narrative cannot compare to the wealth of detail and exotic descriptions provided in the trading sections of the novel. There is a definite pall over the entire story whenever the action occurs in Chicago. The characters in each section are just as disparate. While Graves and Niu dominate both sections, the scenes held in Chicago while both men are still at sea are flat and insipid in comparison to the colorful scenery and larger-than-life cast of characters on the ship. Once everyone is back in Chicago, gone is the sense of danger and mystery, and the reader is no longer afraid that either hero will find himself in mortal danger. The story simply loses steam.
Historically, Bright and Distant Shores is a fascinating glimpse into the turmoil occurring in city landscapes at the turn of the century and the insane obsession with and fierce competition for native goods. Narratively, the story struggles between the adventures of island artifact hunting and the more mundane aspects of life in Chicago. While Mr. Smith has attempted to create an exploration novel in the more traditional grandiose fashion, Bright and Distant Shores falls flat once the narrative reaches land-locked Chicago. From a historical perspective, the shining star of the narrative is the fabulous array of details that allows the reader to easily imagine life in the South Seas, aboard ship, or behind closed doors of those who built and controlled the first modern-day skyscrapers. Mr. Smith’s research is thoroughly and meticulously relayed throughout the story and strengthening the air of realism that already exists in this historical coming-of-age story.
Acknowledgments: Thank you to Atria Books for my review copy!