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Dust

by Arthur Slade

At first the dedication seemed mystifying. “For W.O. Mitchell, Wallace Stegner and Ray Bradbury.” Surely Bradbury was the odd man out. Was this going to be grain elevator meets alien de-moleculizer? But then I remembered Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, a lyrical novel of a boy growing up in 1920s rural America, and I thought I knew what I was in for. The opening image of Dust, a small boy wearing a straw hat walking along a prairie road, seemed to confirm my expectations. As it turned out, however, my initial intuition was correct. This book is a fusion of two genres. In Dust Arthur Slade, author of the Northern Frights novels and Saskatchewan-born and bred himself, melds the classic prairie boy story – introspective lad in closely observed setting has cathartic growing-up experience – with the equally classic small-town horror tale – evil charismatic stranger with unearthly powers wreaks havoc upon trusting rural folk.

The plot here is tightly constructed. The setting is Saskatchewan in the 1930s. The kickoff event is the disappearance of a small boy, seven-year-old Matthew Steelgate. Matthew’s family, his parents and older brother Robert, join police and other townspeople in a fruitless search. A month later Robert is still in despair but his parents seem to be forgetting Matthew. This odd behaviour coincides with the arrival in town of Abram Harisch, a man who plans to reopen the town’s movie theatre. The inaugural event in the theatre is a spectacle involving smoke, mirrors, visions, flashing lights, and a kind of mass hynotism. (Shades of Robertson Davies’ Magnus Eisengrim.) Harisch then announces that he is going to build a rainmill to bring prosperity back to the drought-ravaged community. Skeptics are squelched and the townspeople fall under the spell of this promise.

All the while Robert, a sensitive boy, remains disturbed and dubious. More small children disappear. Adults become increasingly zombie-like. Robert and Harisch have a confrontation in which Harisch reveals the nature of the “dust” that he collects: the souls of children, which he refines and sells to intergalactic buyers in search of power and immortality. Nobody believes Robert’s story and he himself is starting to lose his grip on reality. Besides, the rain machine is effective and prosperity looms. Next year’s harvest will be excellent.

Finally Robert decides to investigate Harisch’s farm and the rainmill. There, in the climactic scene, he discovers the inert bodies of children, including Matthew, their souls being stored as butterflies, and a “sale” about to take place. There is a battle complete with lightning, aliens, pulsing lights, sparking electricity, and a “sulfuric rancid stench.” Robert triumphs. Matthew is freed. Harisch disappears. Real life, including the drought, returns.

Robert is a bookish boy and this is a bookish book and all the better for that. Pulp science fiction, the Bible, Homer – Robert’s imagination is fed by reading. Slade walks easily in the footprints of Mitchell and Stegner as he captures those closely focused moments of childhood so beautifully expressed in the Prairie writing tradition. A busybody woman puts her hand on Robert’s head: “It felt heavy and hot and sweaty like an African toad.” Robert, eating chicken, gets caught up in the dream of prosperity: “Chickens. Ham. Money. Rain.” Slade’s melding of prairie realism and sci-fi speculation works best when applied to concrete reality: “The De Laval cream separator, with all its bowls and pipes, loomed on the cupboard like a Martian instrument of torture.” The notion of “dust” as some sort of universal essence, a theme we also encounter in Philip Pullman’s fantasy series His Dark Materials, is here grounded by references to real dust, dust that gets into the coffee and the gravy, dust that makes it necessary to store all your dishes upside down.

On occasion Slade falters with point of view. Our window on this world is Robert but at points he sounds too adult, as when he describes his mother: “her body a frail vessel for her spirit.” When he observes that his mother and his uncle have the same gaunt features and speculates that they might have shared some frightening event in their youth, I don’t feel I’m inside the head of an 11-year-old boy.

Slade doesn’t often trust us to believe in Robert. We know that Robert reads widely and sees his life in terms of story. We see him enjoying language. We believe that he is articulate. We don’t need “She was not as … what was that word? Judgmental.” When he sees himself as a runner in Marathon we don’t require the explanation, “Robert had read about it in one of his uncle’s books.” Such overexplanation derails us temporarily from the trajectory of the plot. That’s too bad because this is a plot that pulls us firmly along, whether we are the kind of reader whose soul resonates to butterfly-faced aliens and electron battles or the kind who is lured by the love between brothers, the sight of a boy playing with his long shadow as the sun sets, and the scent of wolf willow.