Small World by Jonathan Evison
Decades, centuries, even, of struggle and suffering bear fruit that we may all recognize, even if we have not been part of it. Rich with characters and landscape, this is a substantial literary work that will satisfy any reader of historical fiction.
This is a rich book, replete with characters, places and situations. Told in chapters that alternate between the early – mid 19th century and the present, themes of oppression, escape, ambition, regret and hopeless love are painted over the canvas of lives with myriad intersections. It is indeed a small world in which seemingly unrelated people and plots are woven tightly, if invisibly. The skill in arranging all the threads and finally tying them together is impressive. It is a book that moves quickly and will be finished too soon for many readers, even at 466 pages.
Irish immigrants, escaped slaves, downtrodden Chinese, abused native Americans are all part of what is to become the country we know as the “melting pot”, but in which the wounds of the melting are born by the humblest. Full of history and legend, encompassing the underground railroad, the physical intercontinental railroad and the modern Coastal Starlight passenger train, the presence of iron rails is ubiquitous. Even within the disciplined restrictions of a steel pathway, the possibilities of derailment are ever present. Time after time, plans change, adjustments must be made, and destinations altered. As in life, many do not finish the journey. But life continues to progress down the track nonetheless.
Injustice and oppression burden the characters, but they triumph, sometimes giving their lives to do so, and ultimately right prevails. This moral aspect may seem simple, but the evidence of lives ruined or altered rings with the truth of the real world. It is a hard place, and not everyone survives to see a happy day at the end. The craftsmanship in this work is clear but veiled: the story dominates, the hand behind the curtain remains hidden. Anyone who loves historical fiction of the often-cited “sweeping saga of multiple generations” variety will find this an entirely satisfying experience.