A Dream of Steam by James W. Barry

Great Lakes sailor James Barry was inspired to write his first historical fiction novel by a true story he discovered while sailing among the islands of Lake Huron’s North Channel. The short version, as he tells it, was that of, “the Moiles brothers who, in 1889, executed the heist of their own sawmill to save it from being taken by creditors.”

That event, with all new characters, is the central theme of this novel, set on lakes Huron and Superior in 1891-93. The McGrath brothers own a lumber mill and are involved in logging, sawing the cut trees, and delivering boards by water to customers. The lumber industry was probably the most important commercial enterprise in the western Great Lakes at the time.

The dream of steam focuses on their conversion from water power to a fully steam-driven mill. This technological advance requires a large bank loan, unfortunately from an unscrupulous bank followed by a financial collapse that frightens bank managers into recalling the loan. The unfairness of this move, since the brothers had been making regular payments and would soon pay off the debt, caused them to steal their own mill operations equipment and sail it across the international border to Canada.

Since he is a master rigger who has spent years sailing small square-riggers, James’ descriptions of the barkentine used to transport the lumber are detailed and believable in every way. And the descriptions in some of his chapters’ excellent opening scenes transport his readers directly to the north woods.

As all who write historical fiction must, James no doubt did a lot of research and presents his readers with an accurate picture of the late 1800s on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and nearby ports. However, if this book is historically realistic, it includes too much realism for me. The times, as portrayed, were fraught with danger as people driven by desperation, greed, or just plain nastiness prey on one another.

To the normal hardships caused by the northern Michigan weather and by making do with little, add mean characters, bad risks, loan foreclosure, and acts of God such as forest fires. People are cheats, thugs, addicted gamblers, liars, thieves, murderers, and wife beaters. Our heroes must spend their days looking over their shoulders at every turn. Surely there must have been occasional good days for the brothers and their loved ones? Were there no sunny days?

I understand that novels must move along quickly with plenty of action and tension. Other readers may relish the parade of evildoers and the fallout of their activities, and most will enjoy the beautiful descriptions of the barkentine and unpleasant sailing encounters (whether with the weather or with the bad guys) and the beautiful prose that opens so many of the chapters, but this book is too dark for me.

A Dream of Steam, by James W. Barry (Aloft Publishing, 2018; 326 pages; $14.95 print, $4.95 digital)