If Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes met Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass in the world of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, you might end up with something like Arthur Slade’s YA novel Dust. Or at least, you might end up with the basic premise, setting, and tone and style. Falling short of these classics is no great fault, but unfortunately I’d say Dust falls a bit short even in less rarefied company. It isn’t a bad book by any stretch — it is in fact quite solid and has some lovely moments — but overall it fell a bit flat for me.
Set in the Canadian prairie during the Dust Bowl 30’s, Dust opens with a chilling introduction to a small child about to go missing. Later we meet the young boy’s older brother Robert, who will be the protagonist of the novel. At first his parents and the townspeople are traumatized by the disappearance as one might expect, but when a stranger (Abram) arrives in town promising to build a machine that will bring the rains, Robert’s brother is seemingly forgotten even by his parents. Even when more children start disappearing, the townspeople — adults and children — don’t seem to notice. The one exception is Robert, who seems at least partially immune to Abram’s mesmerism. Determined, suspicious, and growing into maturity and independence, Robert learns Abram’s dark secret, as well as the horrifying reality of what is happening to the town’s children. Though Robert prevails in the end, the victory is far from wholly happy.
Robert’s characterization throughout is one of the book’s strengths. From the very beginning, when he’s introduced to us as a boy sneaking unapproved reading (John Carter of Mars, Treasure Island) given him by his more-lenient uncle; to the way he walks “the cusp” between “dreaming and reality,” between childhood and adulthood; to his stubborn determination to find out what happened to his brother; he is a character that feels wholly real and worth following. His Uncle Alden, who not only reads but writes science fiction and weird tales, is another well-drawn, if relatively minor character. Abrams, meanwhile, has at times some of that delicious Bradbury-like sinister magic surrounding him. Unfortunately, at other times he comes across as flat or overly-explained or worse, overly-expository. Other characters, such as Robert’s parents or school friends, are comparatively flat, even before they are “mesmerized” and are supposed to act that way.
The plot itself is equally mixed. At times there are wonderfully tense moments and the very end of the book is both tense and moving. On the other hand, the story moves a bit slowly in places and the culminating conflict between Robert and Abram is strangely plotted so as to rob it of a lot of excitement. At times, the book is a little slowed by over-exposition, and sometimes Robert’s point-of-view slips the constraints of a child’s mindset. The prose is mostly solid if not eye-opening for the most part. But when Slade is describing the physical and mental details of the setting itself — the plains and the drought — the prose snaps into sharp, searing precision, as when he describes the grasshoppers that seem smaller than last year due to the lack of rain or the way a truck appears out of the road’s heat haze.
Dust has a likable main character and a very intriguing setting, and though the style and plot are a bit mixed, it leans more to the positive side than the negative. It is, however, one of those YA books that is really best read and enjoyed by that YA audience, as opposed to one with more crossover adult appeal.