In James W. Barry’s new novel, A Dream of Steam, readers follow two brothers, William and Thomas McGrath, as they struggle to keep afloat their sawmill business in the 1890s in Michigan. William operates the sawmill and wants to switch to steam power. However, Thomas, who is a captain of a ship that brings their product to market, is reluctant to take the risks involved in securing a loan to make the transition to steam power. Eventually, William convinces him, and the two travel from DeTour in the Upper Peninsula to Detroit to get funding from a bank, little realizing they are setting out on the adventure of a lifetime.
Finding a bank to give them a loan is difficult enough, but Thomas had no idea he’d also have to chase after his brother in the street when William thinks he spots his wife, who abandoned him some years before. William’s heart has never fully healed, and now he begins dreaming of ways to get his wife’s affections back.
In addition, the two arrived in Detroit on Thomas’s ship, which means the ship’s crew is also in Detroit. The crew members want to have a good time, but they soon find themselves getting into a mix of trouble.
Beyond the McGrath brothers, Barry also entertains his readers by bringing us into the private lives of the bankers from whom the brothers secure a loan. John Fitzpatrick is the son-in-law of the bank president. With his penchant for gambling and his dislike of both his father-in-law and brother-in-law, things are not going as smoothly at the bank as they should. The McGrath brothers have no idea about Fitzpatrick’s situation when they accept the loan from him, much less how it will eventually affect their ability to finance their dream of steam.
To describe more of the plot of A Dream of Steam would be to give too much away. But there is much to compliment Barry on in these pages. First, he excels at creating realistic characters. Two other characters he introduces are Klara, an immigrant from Poland who has come to the Upper Peninsula through an arranged marriage, and her prospective bridegroom Anton, who turns out to be someone far from what Klara expected.
We watch Klara struggle to learn English and struggle even more to create a happy home in a new land with a stranger for a husband. I personally felt enmeshed in her story and was ready to cheer her on when she finds the courage to make some difficult decisions.
Creating a realistic atmosphere that takes the reader back in time is another of Barry’s strong suits. My favorite scene in the entire novel is when a Chippewa Indian crosses the frozen-over Mackinac Straits to deliver the mail.
William receives a letter from his wife wanting to meet with him. At this point, he is back in DeTour and she is in Detroit. He realizes a letter could take too long to reach her, so he decides to travel back over the straits with the Chippewa so he can go on to Detroit, hopefully to reconcile with her.
Crossing the straits in winter is no easy task—they are covered with ice and several miles across. Barry describes how the ice shifts and bunches up, creating small mountains and making visibility difficult. It’s also March now, so the ice could be starting to melt, making a journey across it quite treacherous. At one point, William loses his guide. Barry is downright poetic during this scene, so it is worth quoting a short passage
Since Prometheus took fire from Olympus, man has feared that which lies beyond the farthest reach of his beaming flame. Darkness acts upon the mind, swelling the unknown, or partially known, into bestial immensities, dismissed only by the return of light. William could hear the open water lapping against the ice edge, and the timpani of decaying ice chunks colliding as they rotated downcurrent. He pictured the gap in the ice widening by the hour. Possibly by now, it had split and surrounded him, leaving him afloat on an island.
Finally, I should mention that Barry definitely knows his topic when it comes to writing about historical ships. Thomas’s ship is practically a character in itself in the book, and Barry brings to life the moments of sailing it, along with all the work required.
His nautical terms are flawless because he has been a career sailor and is a rigger of traditional ships. In fact, he has even re-rigged historic ships for museums and Hollywood set pieces, including for the films Master and Commander, and Pirates of the Caribbean 2, 3, and 4.
Trust me, you’re in for a treat with A Dream of Steam. With realistic characters, plenty of action, strong bonds created between characters, romance, and historical atmosphere, A Dream of Steam is everything that any lover of historical fiction will delight in. Readers from Michigan will especially enjoy it and its ability to let us briefly time travel to the past and experience it for ourselves.
For more information on James Barry and A Dream of Steam, visit the author’s website.