The genre of fiction broadly title Young Adult has changed tremendously since I was one of its target readers. It’s edgier, more realistic even when fantastic, and a lot bleaker. Dystopian novels existed, but few were geared specifically at the 10-16 age range.
Arthur Slade’s award-winning Dust is one of those great new YA stories. At first I hesitated to call it a novel; surely, I thought, this is a novella. Then I realised that I was comparing its length to novels written for adults and adjusted my paradigm accordingly.
In the end, though, what it’s called doesn’t matter. It’s a good story. Even the synopsis pulls you in:
Imagine a depression-era town where it hasn’t rained for years. A pale rainmaker with other-worldly eyes brings rain to the countryside and mesmerizes the townspeople, but the children begin to disappear one by one. Only young Robert Steelgate is able to resist the rainmaker’s spell and begin the struggle to discover what has happened to his missing brother and the other children.
As good as the hook is, the catch is even better. Dust grabs you from the beginning and keeps your attention all the way through. That said, this is not a story filled with action and adventure in the traditional sense. Rather it’s the building suspense, the anticipation, the not knowing what’s going to happen on the next page, that keeps you reading — and the climactic scene, when it comes, is all the more visceral and heartbreaking for it.
The physical landscape also has its role. Slade’s evocative use of the Canadian prairie, a place he knows very well, makes the scenes come alive in a way that’s missing in a lot of fiction today. He believes in “show, not tell”; when Robert observes that the tumbleweeds aren’t tumbling, even people who have never seen the prairie understand what’s going on.
The characterisations in Dust are first-rate, too. Robert’s evolution from not-quite-child to budding young adult is very well done indeed. Given that the tale is told from his point of view, it’s inevitable that there are things we do not know, question that remain unanswered, about the other characters. But that’s okay, because through Robert we learn all we really need to know; Slade could have given us more insight into the other characters, but this story would’ve been the less for it.
This novel is magical realism at its best, turning the humdrum, everyday world around us on its ear — and sometimes into something else. Stephen King and Ray Bradbury can be proud.
[Bookish Note: 60 Second Reviews are not written in 60 seconds; they’re not really designed to be read in 60 seconds either, although they probably could be. They are called so because they short and to the point. It’s all about getting down to brass tacks, really.]