Arthur Slade‘s young adult novel DUST, is a captivating blend of historical fiction and fantasy. From the very beginning, you are caught up in the life of young Matthew Steelgate who disappears after the end of the first chapter and isn’t seen again until the end. The rest of the story is about Matthew’s family — mother, father, Uncle Alden, his brother Robert — and their rural community around the town of Horshoe, Saskatchewan in the drought and depression of the 30s.
Robert is a sensitive boy who blames himself for his brother’s disappearance. His parents had wanted him to walk with his brother but he chose to stay home and continue reading The Warlord of Mars his uncle had given him. It removes him from the present. He becomes the Warlord, a hero. Robert loves reading and is intrigued by language. When his mother makes “a loud, dramatic sigh” he says she sounds exasperated. “Exasperated. He enjoyed all five syllables. Mom was exasperated.” His mother thinks the radio and books must all serve a pure purpose so the only book in their home is the Bible. However, Robert’s Uncle Alden has a house stuffed full of books and feeds them to him one at a time. He devours them.
Their community is being devoured by the heat. The drought is sapping their energy and the dry dust is in everything — their clothes, their skin, their houses, their food. Everyone is tired, worried, discouraged. Now Matthew, aged seven, is missing as well as two children from another nearby town. At first, everyone joins the search; when that is unsuccessful, the Mounties (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) continue on their own. Then a newcomer arrives, Abram Harsich. He buys the old theatre and opens it with a hypnotizing theatrical show with smoke and mirrors. Everyone who looks into the glass sees something different; something they dream about. Robert sees his Uncle Edmund in the trenches in France where he died. His uncle is yelling to him; he’s pointing to Harsich and yelling, “Evil”.
Robert and his uncle seem to be the only ones in the whole community who believe Harsich is just a slick salesman, a phony who is filling their heads with the promise of a rain machine, a huge tower, they will build, and the rains will come and solve all their problems. Before long, everyone is cheerful — thinking positive thoughts. Harsich comes to school to teach the students about butterflies and brings several with him in boxes. They, too, seem bewitched by Harsich but he explains his trick: he has honey on his gloves. That night, Robert has dreams in which the large blue butterfly, Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, calls him to follow her. The next day, he learns that two more children from school have disappeared.
At home, Matthew is never mentioned; it’s as if he never existed. “Dead. The word had a weight all its own, could be swung like a hammer. Robert still didn’t know exactly what it meant.” Even at school, Matthew’s desk has disappeared. The new disappearances are also soon forgotten. People become more and more tired. Whenever the train whistle is heard, they put their heads down and sleep. Eventually, even Uncle Edmund is affected and Robert is the only one who still remembers Matthew and tries to find him.
The tower the men in the community build brings the rain. At the first demonstration, Harsich talks to Robert and admits that Matthew is still here. That children have a dust like butterflies have on their wings and that he knows how to “harvest” that dust which can be used to “make yourself ageless. Or use it to mesmerize minds. Get men and women to forget their cares.” He has found “traders” in outer space who will pay handsomely for this “dust” from children.
Now is the time for Robert to become the hero of his own story and rescue his brother and the other children; if he can only figure out how. This story itself is “mesmerizing”. The farm life of rural Saskatchewan in the 1930s, the hopes and cares of the farmers, the one-room schoolhouse, the con men selling the promise of better times, and the escapism of the adventure stories of the day — 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Don Quixote, Suspense Detective, The Shadow — all come alive in this tale of one boy’s struggle to retain his reason and restore his brother to his family. * * * * *