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Dust

by Arthur Slade
170 pages,
ISBN: 0006485936


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Children's Books
by Jeffrey Canton

Arthur Slade's literary inventiveness is wonderful. His Northern Frights series of young adult novels, for example, uses the darker side of Icelandic folktales and legends in contemporary Canadian settings to great effect. But unfortunately the quality of the writing never quite matches the breathtaking imaginative leaps that he offers young readers. And, sad to say, his new novel Dust suffers from the same ailment. It's a tour de force idea that doesn't quite work after take-off. It's not easy to say exactly why. Relating the storyline won't help because it's the stories that Slade tells that are so compelling.

Horshoe, Saskatchewan, is trying desperately to limp along despite the Depression. The Steelgate farm hasn't been any harder hit than have its neighbours, but that doesn't make life any easier for seven-year-old Matthew or his eleven-year-old brother Robert. Robert escapes into the fictions that his uncle shares with him¨John Carter's Warlord of Mars, Tarzan of the Apes and Treasure Island. But escape into other worlds doesn't seem quite so compelling when Matthew disappears. As readers we watch Matthew disappear, helpless to act, trapped on our side of the book. And at first, there's a lot of fuss with the RCMP leading the investigation, clues discovered. But slowly, we become aware, as does Robert, that attention is slipping off Matthew's disappearance, and the mysterious disappearances of a number of other children in Horshoe, and is being re-focused on Abram Harsich. He's the new guy in town, a stranger who has promised to save Horshoe with his rainmill, a fabulous invention that Harsich promises will replenish the town's drought-ridden farms with much-needed rain and make them prosper. Harsich makes Robert very uncomfortable, and for good reason, as Robert and reader will ultimately discover. Sounds intriguing, doesn't it?

And it is intriguing, mysterious and tantalizing, dragging us deeper and deeper into the puzzle that lurks behind the sinister Mr. Harsich. But it also begins to unravel as we move deeper into the book, a little here, a little there. Harsich is just a little too patently bad-guy material and Robert is just a little too hapless to be the hero. And the mystery at the heart of the book seems a little too much like a pale imitation of the dust that lurks at the heart of British writer Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy and not quite original enough¨even though Slade is obviously playing with images of dust as a visual symbol of this particular historical moment as well as the child-centred resource that is sought after by aliens from other parts of the galaxy. And Slade is playing with his readers, testing them and teasing them, before guiding them to the somewhat-but-not-entirely happy-ever-after ending. That's what Slade does best¨act as guide to uncomfortable and unsettling emotions, ideas that make us think and propel us into exciting imaginative worlds. So why doesn't Dust work?

As well as fiction, Slade is the author of the hugely successful four-part Hallowed Knight comic book, and perhaps that's what is missing in Dust¨visuals. Maybe we need to see Dust rather than just experience it in our imaginations. It's certainly puzzling that Slade can create such a strong storyline but cannot quite deliver the goods in the final run. Dust is without doubt his best book to date but Slade has got to push a little bit harder to make his really great ideas into really great fiction. ˛

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