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Bright and Distant Shores: A Novel
by Dominic Smith

Published: 2011-09-13
Paperback : 480 pages
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From the award-winning author of The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre and The Beautiful Miscellaneous comes a sweeping historical novel set amid the skyscrapers of 1890s Chicago and the far-flung islands of the South Pacific.

In the waning years of the nineteenth century there was a ...

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From the award-winning author of The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre and The Beautiful Miscellaneous comes a sweeping historical novel set amid the skyscrapers of 1890s Chicago and the far-flung islands of the South Pacific.

In the waning years of the nineteenth century there was a hunger for tribal artifacts, spawning collecting voyages from museums and collectors around the globe. In 1897, one such collector, a Chicago insurance magnate, sponsors an expedition into the South Seas to commemorate the completion of his company's new skyscraper?the world's tallest building. The ship is to bring back an array of Melanesian weaponry and handicrafts, but also several natives related by blood.

Caught up in this scheme are two orphans?Owen Graves, an itinerant trader from Chicago's South Side who has recently proposed to the girl he must leave behind, and Argus Niu, a mission houseboy in the New Hebrides who longs to be reunited with his sister. At the cusp of the twentieth century, the expedition forces a collision course between the tribal and the civilized, between two young men plagued by their respective and haunting pasts.

An epic and ambitious story that brings to mind E. L. Doctorow, with echoes of Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson, Bright and Distant Shores is a wondrous achievement by a writer known for creating compelling fiction from the fabric of history.

Editorial Review

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Summer 1897
They were showing the savages on the rooftop—that was the word at the curbstone. The
brickwork canyon of La Salle Street ebbed with clerks and stenographers, messenger
boys astride their Monarch bicycles, wheat brokers up from the pit at the Board of Trade.
Typists in gingham dresses stood behind mullioned windows, gazing down at the tidal
crowd. Insurance men huddled together in islands of billycock hats and brown woolen
suits, their necks craned, wetted handkerchiefs at the nape. The swelter hung in the air
like a stench. All summer long the signal station had issued warnings and proclamations.
Water-carriers at construction sites fainted from heatstroke and were carried off on
stretchers. Coal and lumberyard workers could be seen at noon, shirtless, wading into the
oceanic blue of Lake Michigan. People spread rugs on their stoops to eat supper in the
open air, watching, with something that approached religious awe, the horse-drawn ice
wagons pull along the streets.
Despite the heat wave, the Chicago First Equitable was opening on schedule.
Destined to be the world’s tallest skyscraper for a little over a year, it jutted above the
noonday tumult, twenty-eight stories of Bessemer steel, terracotta, and glass. For months,
welders and riveters had worked by night to meet the deadline, tethered to the steel frame
by lengths of hemp rope, laboring in the haloes of sodium lamps. Laden barges hauled
along the roily dark of the Chicago River. They came from a bridgeworks on the
Mississippi, pulling loads of rivet-punched girders and spandrel beams. By late spring the
glaziers and carpenters had taken over, finishing out, thirty men to a floor. The clock
... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

1. Discuss Owen and Adelaide’s relationship, and how it is affected by their different social and economic statuses. How are their views of each other influenced by each other’s perception, rather than the reality of their feelings?
2. Discuss the similarities and differences between how Owen and Argus deal with being orphans. How do the memories of their fathers continue to impact them? How does the necessity of being independent at a young age impact them later in life?
3. What are Owen’s motivations for going on the voyage? What do you think influences him the most? Discuss Captain Terrapin’s statement that “all men are equal at sea.” (p. 129) Do you find this to be true?
4. Discuss the role of women in the novel. Think about Adelaide, her mother Margaret, and Malini. How do they exert influence over the men in their lives? How do they see their role in society?
5. Among the Melanesian languages featured in the novel there is no future tense. What does this say about the Melanesian people? Who in this novel is living in the past, the present, or the future?
6. Owen recalls, “His own interest in objects, from the native to the urban, had always been about the story each one represented, about possessing material proof of something transient” (p. 126). What are the motivations of other collectors? What do such objects and artifacts mean to different characters? Think about Argus’ reaction to seeing the tools of his ancestors in the museum: “These items did not belong to the white men but had they saved them from oblivion? He couldn’t know what was true.” (p. 392) What do you believe?
7. Why do Argus and Malini agree to act like savages and be put on display? Do you think they come to regret their choice? What do you think impacts Jethro’s sanity? Is it the snake bite, or something else?
8. Malini thinks, “Weather and time; she was beginning to understand that these were two of the clayskin gods.” (p. 354) Do you agree? Do you find that true in present day?
9. Why does Owen keep the effigy? He says, “It stood for all that waited beyond the brink. All that could arrive without invitation.” (p. 434) What does he mean by this statement?
10. Discuss the symbolism of the house Owen restores. He has been dismantling houses and relocating objects all his life—why is it suddenly important to him to put something back together?
11. Reread Argus’ thoughts as he confronts Jethro on page 456: “His sister, his island, his own boyhood self, they had all be defiled, each in their own way.” Why does Argus react the way he does in this scene? Do you think he does the right thing?
12. Discuss the significance of the section headers. How do they tie together and emphasize parallels within the story?
13. Death plays a large role in this novel. Contrast different characters’ and different cultures’ and social ranks’ views of death, burial, and the afterlife.
14. The novel employs extensive foreshadowing. How is it used as a literary device? What major events did you notice were foreshadowed? How did this impact your reading?
15. Early in the book, the narrative is written from the perspectives of Owen and Argus, but later opens up to include limited perspectives from Adelaide, Malini, Jethro, and Hale. Is there anyone else you would have liked to hear more from? How did this contribute to the novel?
16. Discuss the customs and rituals presented in the novel, both of the native islanders and the Americans on the ship and in the city. What role does tradition and familial obligation play in the characters’ lives?

From the publisher

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Bookmovement Essay:

Dominic Smith on the impetus to write Bright and Distant Shores

The novel idea was sparked by my interest in a real historical event. In 1897, the year my novel begins, six Inuit were brought to New York City by the arctic explorer Robert Peary. Peary had been asked by Franz Boas, who was then working at the American Museum of Natural History, to bring back a Greenland native so scientists could study him “without fear of frostbite.” Peary took it upon himself to bring back six Inuit instead of one. When Peary’s ship arrived in New York, thousands turned out to view the Inuit. The Greenlanders were housed briefly in the basement of the museum and put on view for various scientists, dignitaries, and journalists. Within a year, four of the six had died of tuberculosis, a fifth was returned to the Arctic, while the sixth, a boy named Minik, was adopted by a museum official. The bodies of the Greenlanders were turned over to a medical school for dissection and the bones were later housed in the basement of the museum. In 1992 a journalist exposed the situation. This tragic story got me thinking about the complex dynamic between museum curators and indigenous tribes. But instead of the Arctic, I aimed my narrative lens at Pacific islands off the coast of Australia, not far from where I grew up.

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Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "Bright and Distant Shores"by bgranato (see profile) 04/03/12

It's not that I really didn't like the book -- parts of it were interesting. However, I think too many words were spent on too many different plots and characters. Some of the language was difficult... (read more)

by becelise (see profile) 01/12/18

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