Bright and Distant Shores
Set in 1890s Chicago and the South Pacific, Smith’s third novel begins when an insurance tycoon sponsors the world’s tallest skyscraper. On the night it opens, he hires trader Owen Graves to mount an expedition to the South Seas. Graves is charged with bringing back artifacts judged precious as well as an indigenous family to display on the building’s rooftop gardens. He’s also charged with the care and well-being of another member of the expedition – the tycoon’s only son. Meanwhile, in the South Seas, Argus Niu, a houseboy for a Scottish missionary, strikes out on his own one morning when he discovers his employer dead. Soon, Owen’s expedition and Argus’ life intersect, and each man becomes essential to the other. Owen wants to return home to his fiancée with enough money to start life together. Argus becomes the means to that end as he deftly negotiates with island tribes and when he and his sister agree to pose as the native “family” high atop the skyscraper.
Bright and Distant Shores is told in a fulsome style that teems with both thoughtful substance and picturesque coarseness. Graves and Niu are the perfect guides to Chicago and the South Seas. Of his employer’s mentally unbalanced son, Graves speculates that he seems the kind who “spent his life walking out of rooms in the middle of arguments.” But it is Argus Niu who steals every scene he’s in, as he navigates between worlds and forges his own philosophy, trying to combine his new religion while respecting his family and culture. Historical fiction as its best, Smith’s novel illuminates contradictions of both the valor and lunacy of an era.