Of Ashes and Dust
Debut author Marc Graham has skillfully composed an exceptional historical novel of love, family, war and the adventurous taming of two emerging continent-sized nations in the 1800s. Jim Robbins, born to a poor country family in Arkansas of the 1840s, endures an explosive moment, and his whole life is relived through a series of captivating flashbacks. Jim is a proud white Southerner but still a friend to the local slaves. His hardscrabble family arranges for him to be sent away to stay with well-off friends and learn to be a blacksmith. Unknown to any of them, he has already assisted escaping slaves in their quest for freedom. While mastering the trade, he comes to fall in love, develops a disdain for abolitionists, and ultimately joins the Confederate army. He experiences the hell of war as a junior artillery officer, seemingly loses his first love and moves west to become an Indian fighter and railroad surveyor.
After yet another heartbreaking event, Jim departs in misery once more, moving on to work the expanding railroad system in Australia, along with a Yankee friend he met during the war. It is here the novel comes to a strange but life-affirming conclusion.
This is an epic and sweeping novel, masterfully covering monumental events. Having spent two years in a howitzer battalion, I considered Graham’s superb account of Jim’s Civil War counter-battery combat chillingly realistic. The various regional dialects are rendered with charm in fast-moving dialogue. However, I found the various ritualistic Masonic interludes and chats with ghosts to be a slight distraction, along with straining credibility. Nevertheless, Of Ashes and Dust is a glorious, uplifting and rewarding read which I certainly recommend.