"James Sinclair is on the run, hunted like an animal. An innocent encounter with a young woman leads to horrific allegations by a powerful man. Before he can take a breath, a friend smuggles him out of 1880s Toronto via the remnants of the Underground Railroad and out into the wilderness. James has never been on the back of a horse before. But now, he's riding hard for the Canadian west, fighting raiders, meeting hobos, befriending Métis traders and beautiful women. He must find a new home. He wants to find love. But the long reach of a wealthy industrialist could not just scuttle all his plans; it could also end his life."
In the 1880s, the Canadian prairies were still in the early stages of organized European settlement. Canada itself had been a country for fewer than 20 years, and Sir John A. Macdonald’s (Canada’s first prime minister) promise of a railroad running from coast to coast was still in the construction phase. The Dominion Lands Act of 1872 permitted settlers to acquire one-quarter of a square mile of land and offered more to successful homesteaders. Advertising both in Eastern Canada and in Europe suggested the Prairies were blessed with easily farmed, rich land, attracting settlers from many places, including the ‘crowded’ cities of Eastern Canada. While not the ‘wild west’ of legend in the United States, life in the western territories was not without conflict. Land was often central to the disputes, whether it was disagreement over settlement rights between homesteaders and speculators, or the larger issue of indigenous land rights.
It is against this historical background that J.C. Paulson’s historical adventure /romance unfolds. Following the protagonist, James Sinclair, as he flees Toronto after an accusation of a crime he didn’t commit, the story touches upon many of the political and social issues of the times: Canada’s role in the Underground Railroad; the power and corruption of some wealthy industrialists; the dangers of life without access to medical care. These are lightly explored, for the most part, adjuncts to the plot and the development of James’s character, not a serious investigation.
Blood and Dust isn’t quite a serious historical book. That’s not to say it’s a comedy, but a lightly-drawn hero’s journey, in which James, on his way to find a place to call home, is called upon to learn skills and take tasks upon himself that are completely outside his experience. He has a lot of adventures along the way in his journey to maturity and love, and some of these adventures needed significant suspension of disbelief – but taken in the spirit of the story, I was willing to accept them. (Maybe a few facts should have been checked though - you can't gallop a horse for several hours, for instance.)
The book doesn’t shy away from darker realities: people die violently; the major conflict centres on sexual assault – still, overall Blood and Dust is an optimistic coming-of-age story where the physical journey and the historical places, events and people that James meets feed and shape his internal development. It is an entertaining book, beautifully paced, full of tense situations and with a satisfying ending. It is in many ways a classic Western story – if it were a movie, John Ford would have directed it – but with a distinctly Canadian feel.
Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds
© Marian L Thorpe