T he Tinsmith begins and ends in blood.
Between, the harrowing, stunning new novel by Edmonton writer Tim Bowling is a powerful, haunting evocation of friendship and cruelty, of grace and inhumanity, of violence and beauty.
The Tinsmith begins early on Sept. 17, 1862, in the rural area near Antietam Creek, Md. Troops muster in the predawn hours, and what follows is the bloodiest single day of the American Civil War. Witness to the battle is Anson Baird, a surgeon for the Union army, who risks his own life seeing to the wounded. As the day passes, and the rough pile of severed limbs near the surgery grows, a Union soldier named John silently volunteers to assist Baird, not only restraining the wounded as the ether takes hold, but also venturing onto the battlefield to retrieve more casualties.
It takes a while for Baird to recognize that John isn't actually a soldier, but an escaped slave wearing a Union uniform which barely fits him (most readers will twig to this fact much more quickly than Baird). The doctor takes it upon himself to protect the man, first from a violent overseer searching for missing slaves, then from those who investigate the overseer's mysterious disappearance. So begins a friendship that will span decades and the breadth of a continent.
The bulk of the novel takes place 20 years later on Canada's west coast. John, now known as William Dare, has become a player in the fledgling B.C. salmon industry. So successful is he that other cannery owners along the Fraser River delta conspire to push him out of the industry, violently if necessary. Under threat, Dare sends a telegram to Baird, asking him for help, but by the time the doctor arrives, Dare has disappeared. Baird settles in with one of the rival canning families to await his friend's return, and finds himself caught up in a conflict as perilous as the war between the states, informed by some of the same motivations, though on a much smaller scale.
Bowling's great skill as a writer is to take the epochal and render it intimate, rescaling events without losing any of their significance. Antietam, for example, was one of the most significant battles of the Civil War. Bowling doesn't lose sight of that, but his depiction of the battle is fragmented, focused on Baird's perspective and his actions, from the ache of his shoulders after hours at the operating table to the stomach condition that forces him into pastures and copses to relieve himself and to the casual disregard with which he throws severed limbs aside. This is Baird's Antietam, and Bowling immerses the reader in his experience to a brutal degree.
That immersive quality extends to all the milieus of The Tinsmith. It may not be entirely surprising that Bowling writes compellingly of the Fraser River delta (he grew up in the area, and has returned to it repeatedly in his work), but he writes just as compellingly and convincingly of not only the American Civil War, but also of life in the slave quarters prior to John's escape.
This bears mentioning because it is the sort of achievement that might otherwise be overlooked: As with all great skills, Bowling makes it look easy. In fact, he makes it all look easy. His characterizations are rich and fully rounded, his plotting is tight without ever seeming programmatic, and his language is that of a poet: precise and measured. The reader will flinch, but Bowling never does.
The Tinsmith only falters with the inclusion, late in the book, of a subplot involving a spiritualist. While the secondary plotline has a place, working both at a narrative and a thematic level, its presence is somewhat distracting (at a point when the book is otherwise tightening in focus and tension) and makes the novel feel slightly overstuffed.
It's a bit strange to be complaining of too much of a good thing, but that's a testament to the quality of Tim Bowling's work.
Robert J. Wiersema's most recent book is the memoir Walk Like a Man: Coming of Age with the Music of Bruce Springsteen.