One of the reasons I chose to read this book is because of its setting and time period. The story takes place in the late 1800's in the Pacific Northwest, and Hart paints a vivid verbal picture of the harsh conditions the characters in a mill town called "The Harbor" face daily in their efforts to earn a living and make a home for themselves. In the first chapter, readers are warned about and welcomed into this callous fictionalized by one of the main characters, Jacob Ellstrom: “A body is a mob, a convulsion, an orgasm of destitute rabble. List to it breathe. Feed it. Keep it appeased, always. It’s written on the wall: The Harbor Welcomes You."
Hart does a great job of immersing readers into the hustle and bustle of a community where men toil long hours in the sawmills, sailors cause a ruckus, and criminal activity abounds. Part of what makes the world-building so effective is that the story is narrated by multiple characters giving readers a wider lens to peer into this gritty, cold, and brutal world and the lives that crumble under its weight. The pages are filled with betrayal, murder, heart-break, and remorse.
The two different types of POVs used to tell the story are another aspect of the book that I found interesting. Each chapter of the story is narrated from a particular character’s perspective, and Hart uses a first person POV to give Jacob, his wife Nell, and their child, Duncan a voice. By using a first-person POV, Hart invites readers to connect on a deeper emotional level with this family. However, when the story’s viewpoint shifts to other characters in the community, the author uses a third-person limited omniscient POV creating some distance between the reader and the character. Why the switch? Perhaps to emphasize that the members of the Ellstrom family are the central characters that drive the story.
Hart has created a cast of flawed characters from a range of socio-economic classes whose lives intersect in indelible ways that are often spurred by weakness, desperation, and violence. I didn’t care for many of these characters although I was interested in their backstories and what lay in store for them as the plot progressed. It’s hard to connect with self-centered characters whose greed and brutality overshadow any redeeming traits they might have. However, I don’t see this as a weakness in Hart’s character development. I think his intention is to show how hardened and indifferent people can become living in this environment.
Since the novel’s focus is on Jacob Ellstrom’s family, I really tried to like to empathize with their characters and their quest to start a new life together in The Harbor. While I was saddened to see their family fall apart, I didn’t feel much sympathy for Jacob or his wife, Nell. Jacob is a charlatan, posing as medical doctor building his practice and his place in the community from a foundation of lies. He is a weak man willing to abandon his wife and baby to save himself instead of taking a stand and protecting his family. Although Nell is a victim in many ways, she also makes poor choices that cause me to lose any sympathy I might have had for her. Their young son Duncan is the one who pays the price for his parents’ cowardice. He grows to be a rebellious, angry young man, quick to lash out at others, even those few who try to offer support. However, no matter how difficult his childhood was, it doesn’t excuse his misdeeds. All in all, I didn’t respect any of these characters. Loyalty, even within families, is scarce or non-existent.
Hart delves into the conflicts and failures of father-son relationships not only with Jacob and Duncan, but also with Matius and Jonas, and Mr. Boyerton and his son, Oliver. The author explores the depth of each son’s deep-seated anger and the triggers that bring it to light. Duncan’s hatred of his father and the inner turmoil he experiences because of it is the most apparent in the book and is examined with brutal honesty.
Hart also explores themes of forgiveness and redemption that make this a thought-provoking read. The story has a nebulous resolution, leaving the reader to speculate about what happens to some of the central characters and what their future might hold for them. Usually, I like clear, tidy endings, but in this case, I think it’s appropriate for each individual reader to decide what happens to the characters at the end. I’m sure readers will have mixed and varied opinions about what type of resolution these characters deserve.
Overall, reading the book was a slow but engaging experience for me. At times, I wondered about the inclusion of some scenes and their relevance to the overall plot. In some places, the author uses flashbacks to help the reader understand a character’s motivations, but the transitions to the past events aren’t always smooth. Some of the more emotionally explosive and dangerous scenes lacked the suspense and intensity I anticipated and were somewhat anticlimactic for me. Despite these shortcomings, I would recommend the book to those who enjoy historical fiction and aren’t put off by the story’s dark atmosphere.
Source: I received an ARC of this book from the author to provide an honest review.
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