Review: The Bully of Order by Brian Hart

bully of order by brian hartFormat read: ebook provided by Edelweiss
Formats available: ebook, hardcover
Genre: historical fiction
Length: 403 pages
Publisher: Harper
Date Released: September 2, 2014
Purchasing Info: Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

Set in a logging town on the lawless Pacific coast of Washington State at the turn of the twentieth century, a spellbinding novel of fate and redemption—told with a muscular lyricism and filled with a cast of characters Shakespearean in scope—in which the lives of an ill-fated family are at the mercy of violent social and historical forces that tear them apart.

Keen to make his fortune, Jacob Ellstrom, armed with his medical kit and new wife, Nell, lands in The Harbor—a mud-filled, raucous coastal town teeming with rough trade pioneers, sawmill laborers, sailors, and prostitutes. But Jacob is not a doctor, and a botched delivery exposes his ruse, driving him onto the streets in a plunge towards alcoholism. Alone, Nell scrambles to keep herself and their young son, Duncan, safe in this dangerous world. When a tentative reunion between the couple—in the company of Duncan and Jacob’s malicious brother, Matius—results in tragedy, Jacob must flee town to elude being charged with murder.

Years later, the wild and reckless Duncan seems to be yet another of The Harbor’s hoodlums. His only salvation is his overwhelming love for Teresa Boyerton, the daughter of the town’s largest mill owner. But disaster will befall the lovers with heartbreaking consequences.

And across town, Bellhouse, a union boss and criminal rabble-rouser, sits at the helm of The Harbor’s seedy underbelly, perpetuating a cycle of greed and violence. His thug Tartan directs his pack of thieves, pimps, and murderers, and conceals an incendiary secret involving Duncan’s mother. As time passes, a string of calamitous events sends these characters hurtling towards each other in an epic collision that will shake the town to its core.

My Review:

It drove me crazy trying to figure out exactly where this book takes place. (The disadvantage of an eARC is that there is no map, even if the book has one). I think this stretch of coastline is somewhere between Gray’s Harbor and Cape Disappointment, but that covers a lot of ground.

I cared because I live in Seattle, and picked this book because it takes place in an extremely fictionalized Washington coast at the turn of the last century, around 1900. Early Seattle history is pretty damn colorful to begin with, so I wanted to see how an author would deal with making it even more picturesque. Or even possibly more picaresque.

For me, The Bully of Order is very much of a mixed feeling book. I love historical fiction, and I am always interested in the history of places I live or have lived, so this was all set up to be a two-fer; the parts of the story that aren’t in “The Harbor” (maybe Gray’s Harbor?) are set in Alaska.

The story has multiple viewpoints. Many multiple viewpoints. Narrators switch in and with regularity. And alacrity. To use an old expression, it seems as if everyone has a dog in this hunt.

There is a hunt. Multiple of them.

The story seems to be about Jacob Ellstrom and the complete mess he makes of his life and the lives of everyone around him. He comes to The Harbor with his young wife Nell, and claims to be a doctor. On the frontier, a lot of people claimed a lot of things that weren’t necessarily true “back in the States”, but a doctor is only as good as his self-confidence makes him (and the last patient he saved).

If there is one thing that Jacob Ellstrom doesn’t seem to have much of, it’s self-confidence. He lets everyone else define who he is. His wife thinks he’s a good man, but his older brother bullies him into bad behavior, including racking up massive debts and drinking to the point where he botches his medical practice.

There’s also a conspiracy of silence about his brother’s rape of Nell, Jacob’s wife. Matius Ellstrom is set up to be the embodiment of evil, and he pretty much succeeds at that. Escaping Matias, or running away instead of standing up to him, becomes the driving force in Jacob’s life, Nell’s life, and their son Duncan’s life.

The Harbor is a gritty logging boom town that the reader knows is going to bust; the omnipresent timber woods, do, in fact, run out. The town never gets civilized, and criminal lawlessness is always just one drink too many away.

The miasma that surrounds The Harbor reminds me of the dark atmosphere of Deadwood, but the storytelling in The Bully of Order isn’t nearly as clear. It definitely is just as bloody.

The story is both Jacob’s search for redemption, and Duncan’s search for retribution. At the end, it is left up to the reader to decide whether either of them achieved what they desired.

Escape Rating C+: The language used in the story is lyrical, even when (especially when) the events that are described are heading downward into an increasingly dark and complex history for the characters.

The chorus effect of the number of perspectives reminded me a bit of The Spoon River Anthology; every single person has their own part to play, and their own way of telling their particular bit. I particularly liked Kozmin the Hermit’s tale of the Russian scout who traveled with Baranov during the early days of the Russian outpost in Alaska. The Bully of Order has itself been compared to Russian literature, both in its darkness and the bleakness of its setting and story.

The Bully of Order is not a story for the faint-of-heart; bad men do bad things often for bad reasons, and if anyone escapes a terrible fate, it’s by luck and not by their actions. The Pacific Northwest was a rough and brutal place back then (true stories of the Klondike Gold Rush will make your hair stand on end), but out of that brutality arose the beautiful places that we know today.

The journey, at least as portrayed in The Bully of Order, was often a very dark and very sad one. No good deed, and very few of the bad ones, went unpunished.

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