The bloody, brave beginnings of the Northwest

Review of ‘The Bully of Order’ by Brian Hart.

  • Colby Village, one of the first settlements on the western shore of Puget Sound, around 1884, where a post office, an Independent Order of Good Templars Hall (the two-story building), and a hotel (uphill and to the left) were established early.

    Courtesy Yukon Harbor Historical Society
 

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 its 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.