Summary and book reviews of Bright and Distant Shores by Dominic Smith

Bright and Distant Shores

A Novel

By Dominic Smith

Bright and Distant Shores
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  • Paperback: Sep 2011,
    480 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Beverly Melven

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About this Book

Book Summary

From the award-winning author of The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre and The Beautiful Miscellaneous comes a sweeping historical novel set amid the skyscrapers of 1890s Chicago and the far-flung islands of the South Pacific.

With critical praise lavished on his first two novels, Dominic Smith has become a celebrated and deeply revered storyteller. Bright and Distant Shores, his latest novel, offers a stunning exploration of late-nineteenth-century America and the tribal Pacific. It's an epic journey that fans of historical fiction will never forget.

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.

An epic and ambitious story that brings to mind E. L. Doctorow, with echoes of Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson, Bright and Distant Shores is a wondrous achievement by a writer known for creating compelling fiction from the fabric of history.

Paperback Original

Prologue

Summer 1897

They were showing the savages on the rooftop - that was the word at the curbstone. The brickwork canyon of La Salle Street ebbed with clerks and stenographers, messenger boys astride their Monarch bicycles, wheat brokers up from the pit at the Board of Trade. Typists in gingham dresses stood behind mullioned windows, gazing down at the tidal crowd. Insurance men huddled together in islands of billycock hats and brown woolen suits, their necks craned, wetted handkerchiefs at the nape. The swelter hung in the air like a stench. All summer long the signal station had issued warnings and proclamations. Water-carriers at construction sites fainted from heatstroke and were carried off on stretchers. Coal and lumberyard workers could be seen at noon, shirtless, wading into the oceanic blue of Lake Michigan. People spread rugs on their stoops to eat supper in the open air, watching, with something that approached religious awe, the horse-drawn ice wagons ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. Discuss Owen and Adelaide's relationship and how it is affected by their different social and economic statuses. How are their views of each other influenced by each other's perception, rather than the reality of their feelings?


  2. Discuss the similarities and differences between how Owen and Argus deal with being orphans. How do the memories of their fathers continue to impact them? How does the necessity of being independent at a young age impact them later in life?


  3. What are Owen's motivations for going on the voyage? What do you think influences him the most? Discuss Captain Terrapin's statement that "all men are equal at sea." (p. 129) Do you find this to be true?


  4. Discuss the role of women in the novel. Think about Adelaide, her ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse

Bright and Distant Shores fits well into the tradition of travel narratives, where cultures clash and moral ambiguity is the order of the day. Lives and fortunes are risked, the innocent come to knowledge, and everyone discovers more about themselves than they do about the 'other' they go looking for. Smith does a good job of building a compelling narrative while feeding our desire for the bizarre and fascinating.   (Reviewed by Beverly Melven).

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Media Reviews
Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Smith's impressive third novel is an absorbing exploration of culture, tradition, and renewal through the high seas adventure of three very different men... Smith expertly combines well-drawn characters with a complex narrative that moves smoothly to the dawn of a new century.

Library Journal

This excellent read will appeal to those who enjoy literary historical fiction with a touch of exotic adventure.

Booklist

Smith's buoyant writing carries the novel through the pitches and swells of the entertaining plot, and his virtuosity with language makes for pitch-perfect description of all he surveys.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Written with extraordinary literary grace, Smith's third novel gleams as a gem of evocative historical fiction... Beautifully researched and ripe with symbolism - an enthralling narrative peopled by characters both exotic and real.

The Age (Australia)

Smith's novel is an atmospheric, meticulously observed period drama from a footsure and stylish writer with a fine sense of narrative pace.

Australian Book Review (Australia)

A breathless narrative pace... a riveting tale... evocations of Chicago surprise and delight.

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Historic Chicago in Bright and Distant Shores

In Bright and Distant Shores, Dominic Smith references some of the historic people and events that helped shape Chicago around the turn of the 20th century. Read on for more information about these fascinating institutions:

  • Hull House - a resource for new immigrants to the U.S. established by two women in 1889. They offered a nursery, classes in English, technical skills, and other services to help immigrants be successful in their new country. (In Bright and Distant Shores, Adelaide volunteers here).

  • Field Museum - originally called the Columbian Museum of Chicago, it was established as a result of the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition in 1893 (where Owen and Adelaide first meet). Exhibits from the fair were given a permanent ...

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