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Schroeder, Andreas.

Toronto, Doubleday, c1986. 215pp, cloth, $19.95, ISBN 0-385-25038-X. CIP

Grades 11 and up
Reviewed by Joanne Peters

Volume 14 Number 5
1986 September

The author of Dustship Glory, Andreas Schroeder, has written six other books and has been a finalist for the Governor General's award for non-fiction. Although Schroeder categorizes Dustship Glory as a novel, rather than as a biography, it is best described as a type of historical novel, based on a true story, intertwining both the results of numerous and diligent interviews and the hypotheses and the inventions of a fiction writer who has an intuitive grasp of his protagonist's character.

South of Moose Jaw, on Highway 2, one can see the subject of Schroeder's book; an ocean-going freighter built during the height of the Depression in the Saskatchewan dustbowl by a Finnish immigrant named Tom Sukanen. The ship is as much the hero of the work as is Sukanen. for as his idea becomes a reality, the life of the ship and the life of the man become one. The task is an Herculean one; after the boat is built, it must be towed to the nearest river for launching on its sea-going voyage to Finland. The notion is either heroic or patently absurd, depending upon your view of those who undertake quixotic ventures.

For seven years, Sukanen labours at the construction of the ship, alienating his neighbours and undergoing enormous personal,deprivation. That he was able to maintain his dogged sense of mission in the face of total ridicule, and with virtually no help from others, is a tribute to his toughness of will and body. However, idiosyncracies such as a penchant for subsisting on maggot-infested horseflesh and an irrational misogyny are not likely to enlarge one's circle of friends, of which Sukanen seemed to have no need anyway. Much literature detailing the immigrant experience focusses on ihe individual's sense of isolation in the new land, with one of the primary conflicts existing in the attempt to come to terms with the adopted country. Sukanen has no desire to become a part of the new world; even in his native land, his eccentricity would permanently condemn him to social exile.

The unique bizarreness of Sukanen's character is conveyed by a variety of perspectives; the local Mountie, former neighbours, Sukanen's nephew, and the psychiatric nurse who worked in the hospital to which the "Captain" was confined, all recount their recollections of this visionary/madman. Indeed, one of the strengths of Schroeder's technique is his melding of third-person narrative of Sukanen's life with skillfully rendered first-person accounts by those who remembered the man and his dream; a crackpot dream, perhaps, but a dream, nevertheless. In his preface, Schroeder lakes pains to point out that he does not attempt to explain what drove Sukanen to do what he did. Probably no one, not even Sukanen, can or could have. What Schroeder sets out to do is to "clarify the forces at work in the man and the decade, leaving the reader in a better position to make whatever judgements he may deem necessary ..." In that endeavour, he succeeds.

The language, style, and theme of Dustship Glory make it suitable only for students in senior grades of high school. While the first-person recollections superbly reflect the personality of the speakers, less than able students might lose the thread of the narrative in these chapters. The desperation of life in the prairies dustbowl of the 30's is certainly a strong undercurrent in the story, but as a document of the times, it is rather limited in its usefulness. In short, Dustship Glory would probably be best used as a supplementary novel for extensive study or as a suggested work for supplementary reading in grades 11 to 12.

Joanne Peters, Sisler H.S., Winnipeg, Man.
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