Aspen Times Weekly book review: ‘The Bully of Order’ |

Aspen Times Weekly book review: ‘The Bully of Order’

by Traci J. Macnamara for High Country News

‘The Bully of Order’

Brian Hart

400 pages, hardcover: $26.99

HarperCollins, 2014

Brian Hart’s new novel, “The Bully of Order,” possesses a strange magnetism. At times, it’s disturbing, even repulsive, with its graphic violence and crude characters — and yet it’s irresistible, multi-layered plotline will tug you all the way through a story that captures the gritty lawlessness of the Northwest’s beginnings. Set in a turn-of-the century town in Washington state known simply as “The Harbor,” “The Bully of Order” delves into the plight of the Ellstrom family, who begin the story as hopeful newcomers amid a desperate population of sailors, crooks, prostitutes and sawmill laborers.

A young idealist with an itch for adventure, Jacob Ellstrom comes to the Harbor from the Midwest, accompanied by his new wife, Nell, and equipped with a medical kit and dreams of becoming a successful doctor. But Jacob lacks formal medical training, and when a fatal mistake reveals him as a charlatan, he abandons his wife and young son to begin a new life on the streets and in remote logging camps. Then, just when reconciliation seems possible, Jacob becomes complicit in an act of violence that compels him to leave the Harbor, and his family, for good.

When Jacob’s son, Duncan, grows up and becomes entrenched in his own cycle of deceit and violence, Jacob returns, determined to help. But it’s too late to resurrect the dreams he had for his family. Once, Jacob had believed “in the West and the wide openness of a man’s future,” but his first glimpse of the Harbor and its people foreshadows his own family’s tragic fate. “So there it was: sloppy piles of turned earth, logs jutting, fires smoldering,” Jacob says. “They couldn’t make it worse, but God they were trying. The hovels — they weren’t houses — were made of red cedar shakes and lacked proper windows, shutters and no glass, somehow purely Puritan, like we’d caught them mid-exorcism.”

This is not an easy book: Literary and complex, it demands a certain degree of focus, but Hart’s storytelling skill establishes a sense of trust that allows the reader to see beyond his seemingly depraved characters and imagine a more hopeful future for the Harbor. Many novels celebrate the tenacity of those who settled the West, but “The Bully of Order” also acknowledges the difficulty — and sometimes the impossibility — of surviving and protecting one’s family in turbulent times.

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