After finishing The Tinsmith, readers may be forgiven for concluding there’s no need for religions to construct versions of hell to keep the flock in line. That’s because Tim Bowling’s fourth novel grinds them through two eviscerating circles – the industrialization of war and the arrival of mass production – in what resembles a 19th-century Inferno, minus the divine and the comedy.
Opening at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland on Sept. 17, 1862, the single bloodiest day in U.S. history, The Tinsmith is the grim yet riveting tale of white Civil War doctor Anson Baird and the battlefield bond he forms with John, an escaped slave. Because of his pale skin, John does not arouse suspicion as a runaway. In the bloody chaos of the makeshift hospital, John assists Baird in his primitive surgeries and, in turn, the bedraggled doctor supplies him with a Union army uniform and a new identity as soldier William Sullivan Dare.
Both men survive the slaughter at Antietam, but not without scars. Dare’s scar is literal: before fleeing his cruel overlord, the letters “SV” were branded on his cheek (he keeps these covered with a beard and later mutilates his own flesh to make the letters less recognizable). For Baird, the scars are metaphoric: war “hadn’t just violated, it had destroyed the past fifteen years of … comfortable abidance in the unquestioned verities of continuance.”
Twenty years pass and Dare now runs a successful salmon cannery in British Columbia. He summons Baird by telegram for help when he discovers that his rivals are plotting against him, and that rumours about his past have been swirling.
Bowling captures the unrelenting sensory assault of war and industry as they combine in a sort of amoral apotheosis. The presence of death is constant: dead soldiers turn black and bloated in the sun, and the cannery floor is slick with the slime and blood of dead fish. Despite the scale of suffering – or perhaps because of it – Baird and Dare remain defiantly hopeful in their outlooks. In the face of immeasurable savagery, they manage to retain their humanity.
This is a powerful and emotionally wrenching book.