Dust By Arthur Slade
The shock of rural decline, of seeing small-town Saskatchewan pillars like curling rinks, schools, family farms, and bars crumbling into nothingness, and blowing away like so much “dust in the wind,” makes stories like Arthur Slade’s Dust, and other supernatural stories, all the more relevant to the psychological, political, social, ideological, and narrative needs of Saskatchewan people. How do we respond to the disintegration of rural life? Where do we find a substantial narrative to replace the illusion of the colonial “great uninhabited land” narrative? Must our narrative structures become dust,
so we can be re-created by a great inhabited (not uninhabited) land?
I enjoyed Dust's rural 1930s Saskatchewan setting with its familiar sights and sounds, such as: prairie grasses and insects, crickets singing, flying grasshoppers, fields, grain elevators, the Hotel on Main Street, the train track, the Chinese Laundry, the Pool Hall, the Mounties, and references to Fort Walsh and the whiskey traders. This book gives plenty of opportunities to discuss life and history of Saskatchewan in the “dirty 30s” with students. Interesting, too, is that the threat of extinction that the 1930s drought posed for farming communities, is a threat today even though we are not facing drought, or economic depression.
Another enjoyable aspect of this book is the abundant use of figurative language. Slade uses many similes and metaphors, comparing events and ideas to prairie life and land. By using metaphors and similes, Slade creates an identification with the prairie landscape. Through metaphor, the external world is drawn inward, forming a relationship between the characters, the land, and the audience. Is identification and metaphoric harmony with the land important to finding a substantial post-colonial identity?
Dreams and reality are important themes throughout the novel. Abram, the soulless magician, exploits the dreams and hopes of the community by promising that he can produce rain. By doing so, he blinds them to his real agenda, which is to kidnap children, harvest their souls, and exchange their souls for one of his own. Robert, the main character, is able to see through Abram’s illusions because he is in a liminal space between boyhood and manhood. He is old enough to remain detached from the illusions, and also young enough to believe in them.
Of course, good and evil become important themes. Images of light and dark, and sun and shadow are spattered throughout the novel. The reader can sympathize with Abram because he doesn’t have a soul; thus, cannot experience the flight of imagination, emotion, dreams, or gain entrance to the spirit world. However, Abram has chosen to steal, kill, enslave, and deceive in order to gain a soul. Abram is not successful; good triumphs over evil. In contrast, despite the personal risk of being put under the spell of Abram's stronger magic, Robert uses his magical power to save and release the souls of the kidnapped children, and becomes a hero. This demonstrates how sacrifice of one’s self is what makes a hero, not sacrificing others to save yourself. Abram’s sulphurous smell, the image of the thousands of people whom Abram has destroyed over the ages, and his deceptive, illusionary power to enslave, leads the reader to believe that Abram is the devil incarnate, and deserving of the disastrous outcome of the story.
Like Abram, the colonial assimilation strategies of the past, which robbed people of their souls, must be defeated. Our narrative heroes must be those who are willing to sacrifice themselves, and use their power to empower others. Only by acknowledging the truth and pain of the past, and by giving back the ability to dream and to imagine, can a new substantial narrative be born.