Take me to a bookstore and two of the first sections I'll explore will be Fiction and History. Fiction, because, well...I enjoy creative minds and what comes out of them. Creating whole worlds and characters is a huge challenge and I appreciate the fact that authors have the courage to release their work to the world. And History... History, if written with a new perspective and impeccable research, will turn you into a glutton. Seriously. If I hadn't read Robert Graves' 'I, Claudius' series, I would probably be lacking in knowledge about the Roman Empire. It takes a good author to satisfy not only a craving for historical non-fiction, but also gives us the impetus to explore our world even more. History is more than famous leaders. It's more than world-shaking events. It is about the people who went about their daily lives, touched by what was happening around them. We are descended from those people, and it their memories and experiences that even now touch our own lives, prompting us to explore the past. Who wouldn't want to find out if our great-great-great grandparents were cattle rustlers? Or feminists? Or queens and kings? To take these facts and create a good novel can be a daunting task.
'Bright and Distant Shores' by Dominic Smith is a well-told piece of historical fiction. Taking place in 1897, it begins in Chicago, where an insurance magnate has just completed the construction of the world's tallest skyscraper. To commemorate the building, he sends to the South Sea Islands a young adventurer who is entrusted to purchase artifacts which will be exhibited in the skyscraper. But not only is he to bring back weapons and art, but he must also return with several natives.
The love story contained within isn't the usual romance. It is highly intelligent and very real. While visiting an exhibition, the young, poor adventurer meets a woman of high social standing and the resulting relationship is at once tender and rare. The woman is a force to be reckoned with; as most wealthy women in that era had not much to do, they poured their ambition into charity work, but Adelaide's endeavors are genuine. She deeply cares about helping others who are less fortunate.
While I enjoyed reading about Chicago in the late 1800's, it was the South Sea adventure that thoroughly grabbed my interest. The Chicago chapters made me want to break away from its stifling atmosphere and sail off to a part of the world that was still somewhat fierce and exciting. In that, my heart was with Owen, the young adventurer.
During his search, Owen meets Argus Niu, a houseboy serving a minister who is the head of a Christian mission. When Argus is reunited with his sister, who had joined another tribe, the clash between his Christian faith and her superstition is beautifully realized. Civilization was creeping in, and the end of exploration of the South Sea islands was nearing its end.
Many early reviewers have compared this novel to works by Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson, and I thoroughly agree.
But I'm adding a dash of H. Rider Haggard, without the metaphysical element.