Sunday Burgs book review
A Moment in the Sun, by John Sayles. McSweeney’s Books, 2011.
Reviewed by Gene Hyde of Blacksburg. He is archivist and special collections librarian at Radford University and a member of the Montgomery-Floyd Regional Library Board of Trustees.
The 1890s was a decade of transition for the United States. America’s internal westward expansion had drawn to a close, while the country embarked on its first foray into international imperialism with the Spanish-American War. The Klondike gold rush created a frenzy up north, Jim Crow and racial tensions cast a pall in the South, and unions struggled for workers’ rights in a series of violent strikes. It was, to say the least, an interesting time in American history, an era that serves as the stage for this fine pair of historical novels by Dominic Smith and John Sayles.
Australian-born, Texas-based author Dominic Smith’s “Bright and Distant Shores” is beautiful novel that unfolds in both Chicago and the distant islands of the Pacific. As skyscrapers start to fill the Chicago skyline, the city’s attention is cast to distant shores when it hosts the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. One businessman, in an effort to build his own museum to compete with the nascent Field Museum, hires Owen Graves to sail the South Seas in search artifacts and treasure.
Graves, meanwhile, has fallen in love with Adelaide Cummings, a suffragette who volunteers at Hull House and against his better judgment sets sail in hope of securing his own fortune. Once in the Pacific he encounters Argus Niu, a New Guinea native raised and educated by Scottish missionaries who seeks a monastic life in the United States.
Smith is a brilliant writer, adept at developing rich, complex characters and evoking both urban Chicago and the surf-washed shores of the Solomon Islands. His story is fast-paced and highly engaging, taking a few unexpected yet convincing turns along the way. “Bright and Distant Shores” is a well-researched, thoughtful work of literary fiction that’s hard to put down.
American filmmaker John Sayles is best known for such movies as Matewan, Eight Men Out, Lone Star, Limbo, and Silver City. He’s also published several novels, including his latest, “A Moment in the Sun,” a sprawling work filled with characters cast adrift in the turbulent events of 1890s America.
Unlike Smith’s novel, which uses historical events as a literary backdrop for an original narrative, “A Moment in the Sun” is primarily concerned with how history shapes peoples’ lives, particularly when events are out of an individual’s control.
Over the course of 955 pages, Sayles’s characters grow and develop as they are shaped by history. He follows several major events, including the 1898 Wilmington, North Carolina race riots. Several of his characters are successful middle class African Americans in Wilmington, and one of the major plot lines involves how they survive the diaspora from Wilmington, ending up in New York City and the U. S. Army.
The Spanish-American War and the corresponding invasions of Cuba and the Philippines form Sayles’ second major plot line. (His portrayal of the Philippine-American War is also the subject of Sayles’ 2010 film “Amigo.”) He follows several troops serving in an African-American Army division, as well as a group of Filipino insurgents as they fight the Americans. As befitting a filmmaker, Sayles throws in the occasional historical cameo (as it were), with Teddy Roosevelt and Mark Twain showing up for a few pages. Fans of Sayles’ films and his unflinching progressive viewpoint will find much to love in “A Moment in the Sun.”
-If you would like to be a guest reviewer, e-mail email@example.com.
No Comments »
No comments yet.