Book Review: “The Road to Dalton” by Shannon Bowring
The setting of Shannon Bowring’s impressive debut, The Road to Dalton, will be familiar to most readers of Stephen King’s classic horror novels — though there’s not much horror to be had here unless one is referring to the domestic home-life kind. (As an aside, this is a book that features what appear to be 13 short stories featuring different characters that are interlinked with each other to form a novel.) The Road to Dalton is connected to Stephen King in the sense that it is set in the titular Northern Maine village over a single year — 1990, in this case — and is right next door to the Maine of King’s fiction. As it would turn out, this is a book about a lot of things. It’s about the fact that many small towns consider outsiders as something to be tolerated and not welcomed. It’s also about the fact that towns such as Dalton also treat as strangers those who are involved with things that are not (at least at the time of this novel’s setting) acceptable, such as being queer. It’s also a book about what happens in the face of tragedy in small towns as residents seek to reduce people who might be heroes but elevate those who are suffering from a monumental loss. There’s a lot to take in here, and it helps that this book is an enjoyable and commanding read — though with a blemish or two.
The story centers on several characters: There’s Rose, the secretary of the local police force, married to Tommy, who beats her relentlessly. There’s Nate, a rookie police officer, who is married to Bridget, who is having trouble adjusting to the fact that she’s now the mother of a colicky child named Sophie. There’s Greg, a 14-year-old high school student who eats himself into oblivion but saves the day when a female friend he has designs on falls through the ice during a skating party on a local river. He is also grappling with his sexuality. Equally grappling with their sexualities are Bev and Trudy, best friends who are married to spouses who they have alienated with their secret homosexual relationship but not to the point that a divorce or two is an option. There’s also Richard, who is married to Trudy and is the town’s local doctor: a person who has access to its resident’s secrets.
Thus, the thing you get with The Road to Dalton is a lot of storytelling — and much of it is top-drawer. You get to care about these people — even if the occasional character is a one-dimensional lout — and get to understand the mountain of sorrow one character must face when tragedy befalls his spouse. I’ve probably said this kind of compliment before, but Bowring is a natural and gifted raconteur, and she can magically bring to life a wide assortment of characters from different backgrounds and ages. However, this is a short novel of some 200 pages and my only real complaint — well, other than the fact that Tommy is an asshole with no redeeming qualities (it would be nice to understand the nature of his personality that make him violent) — is that some plot threads get dropped in favour of the overwhelming tragedy that strikes the village’s residents. It’s as though the bad thing that happens midway through the novel is impetuous for all the stories that come afterward, leading us to wonder things such as why Greg’s sexuality seemingly remains unresolved. However, I would probably be carping here because The Road to Dalton is a wonderful book with memorable characters — people that you want to see overcome their difficulties and the cards that fate has handed them in life.
I’m surprised at the fact that Bowring hasn’t published a novel before, because a lot of this is Grade-A stuff. She’s a writer who possesses talent because she has attracted a blurb from a well-known and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Richard Russo, for this book. Readers will get swept away by the kitchen sink drama of this read — and believe me, there’s plenty of drama to be had here — and will wish that Bowring isn’t done with Dalton and a sequel may be in the works. That’s how powerful her writing is. At the end of the day, The Road to Dalton doesn’t have a lot of literary bells and whistles but is a restrained and unvarnished look at the people who populate small towns. I may be biased, as I come from a small, rural town in Ontario myself, and could relate to a lot of this.
If you’re simply looking for a good tale told as though you were sitting around a campfire, The Road to Dalton is going to offer you many gifts in terms of enjoyability. This is sterling stuff, and readers will be glad to have encountered the richly woven characters who populate the tale — as well as the nostalgic setting of 1990. (It’s also a neat trick that this story takes a full year to unfold, beginning on New Year’s Eve of the year prior and extending into December.) There’s a lot of real meat packed into this shortish book, so if you enjoy books set in quaint New England rural settings, The Road to Dalton will have a lot to offer. Get out your roadmaps and find the quickest route to this town once it’s published because this is a book that you’re probably going to fall in love with. The Road to Dalton is simply majestic and that’s all that you need to know about this read that will keep you glued to the pages as they unfurl. Bowring is an author to watch.
Shannon Bowring’s The Road to Dalton will be published by Europa Editions on June 6, 2023.
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