Book Review: A Dream of Steam by James Barry

Title: A Dream of Steam

Author: James W. Barry

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publication Date: December 10, 2018

Synopsis: As the autumn shipping season draws to a close, Captain Thomas McGrath steps ashore to help his ambitious brother William rebuild the family sawmill. Despite Thomas’s aversion to debt, William convinces him to borrow heavily so they might convert their ailing, water-powered mill to steam. While adapting to the new technology, Thomas finds himself navigating between ax-wielding log pirates, hostile longshoremen, and his brother’s obsession with finding his estranged wife. 

The newly retooled mill is ramping up lumber production when the winds of fortune turn. Thomas has set sail again when a financial crisis hits, running the brothers afoul of John Fitzpatrick, a crooked bank officer employed by their lender. Fitzpatrick’s crimes push the McGrath Brothers Lumber Company to the edge of ruin, forcing Thomas to consider a high risk proposal if he wants to save their livelihood and get out of debt.

Set in 1890s Michigan, A Dream of Steam is a story of sailing ships and lumberjacks, hope and disappointment, love and heartbreak, peopled by men and women who take control of their destinies in an era of rapid change.filligree page divider

This is a story of sailing and sawmills: two things I initially thought would not fit together well, but which the author skillfully weaves into a single tale.

Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, and I have not neglected reading about the late 1800s by any means, but this is a story I was not prepared for (which made it even more exciting). I know very little about sailing or boats in any time period, and equally little about how sawmills work. It was very interesting, then, to learn about the process of upgrading a mill from water power to steam power. I was able to grasp most of this aspect without much trouble; however, the nautical aspect was another thing entirely. Luckily, there is a glossary in the back of the book explaining the jargon.

A Dream of Steam spends approximately equal amounts of time on land and on water, which I believe will widen its appeal. Those who enjoy boating stories will have plenty to enjoy, and those who prefer more home-based historical fiction will also find their fill.

There are additionally several side plots explored alongside that of modernizing the mill. We learn about the life of the banker in charge of the mill owner’s loan (taken out hesitantly in order to expand and upgrade the mill), his chief clerk’s secrets, and about a mail order bride passing through. Initially, this can be a bit confusing. There are so many characters introduced in quick succession through alternating chapters, that by the time it came back to the first characters’ POV, it was a challenge to remember each one’s role. I think I had everyone sorted out by the end of the first section, and as the story progressed it became easier. Additionally, the story lines eventually overlap into a single thread, making it easier still to keep things straight.

I enjoyed some chapters of A Dream of Steam more than others. While not exceedingly graphic, there is violence in multiple chapters, and it was enough to make me a bit uncomfortable. I don’t consider myself particularly squeamish, but I also know that I have a lower tolerance for violence than some, so take that as you will. There is also some foul language; again, it is not overwhelming, but definitely there. On the other hand, the writing is easy to read, and the story moves along well once everything has been set up and everyone introduced. The romance aspect is very minor, and there are both positive and negative examples of family life.

I enjoyed following along as William and Thomas McGrath pursued their dreams of the new mill and sailing, and watching the way they worked together. Still, perhaps because my life is so different from theirs, it was difficult to really connect with the characters, which meant it was not as engaging as some books. Sailing ships and lumber mills are interesting to visit through fiction, but not settings I found myself fully immersed in. This is not at any fault of the author, however; the settings are thoroughly outfitted with appropriate (but not overbearing) details, the characters given a background and reasons for doing what they do, and the plot is coherent and unique. It all became even more interesting once I finished the book and read the authors note, and realized that some of the things I thought most unrealistic were actually true events which inspired the story in the first place!

If you enjoy plot-driven historical fiction from the 1890s with a dash of mystery and a heaping side of action, I definitely recommend A Dream of Steam. It may not stick around as one of my personal favorites, but I can see it being enjoyed very much by people with a reading preference that is similar-but-not-identical to mine. filligree page divider

Do you enjoy reading stories about sailing? Have you ever read about a sawmill before?

As many as there are, it almost seems that nautical books should be their own genre! It isn’t a theme I often read. Moby Dick kind of ruined it for me (I know, it’s a classic, and as much as I appreciate the cultural and historical value, that book was difficult to slog through). Once in a while I like to read about sailing, despite the fact that I always end up at a loss in all of the technical terms. Peter and the Starcatchers is definitely my favorite story set mostly on a boat.

A Dream of Steam releases on Monday, and I am so excited for it! I hope you’ll join me in wishing the best of luck to author James Barry as A Dream of Steam sets sail.

Also on Monday, Merry Monday Minis begin! I’m looking forward to spreading some Christmas cheer throughout the blogosphere, so be watching for it!

Until the next chapter,


Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the author and happily provided my honest review.

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