The Boundless: Historical Fiction by Kenneth Oppel

Our Resident Oppel fan, Janet (who is defending her thesis this week!), gave me the go ahead to review Oppel’s newest release The Boundless. I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed this book and have really enjoyed rediscovering my love of Historical Fiction! So much intrigue, so many interesting little tidbits and factoids! The ambiance that an author builds so that we readers can really sink our feet into the story is always so rich and marvellous.

Boundless by Kenneth Oppel, illustrated by Jim Tierney
Boundless by Kenneth Oppel, illustrated by Jim Tierney

It is hard to pigeonhole The Boundless work, it is truly a cocktail of genres blending historical fiction, adventure, fantasy even a little bit of retelling and adaptation – what The Boundless does is blend reality with imagination. Oppel, as he often does, makes insightful commentary on the human journeys of growing up and finding oneself. Will Everett, our protagonist, manages to do both when he embarks on a rip-roaring adventure aboard the larger than life Boundless steam engine in one of Canada’s most intriguing time periods – the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR).

The newly finished Boundless stretches for miles and includes first, second, third and colonist class along with a traveling circus (run by a Métis named Mr. Dorian), the caboose, and several cars that house the rough train workers and, of course, the funeral car of Cornelius Van Horne. Van Horne, modelled off the 19th century rail baron, is in charge of completing the CPR. Will’s adventures start with some life-changing childhood encounters. First he encounters Maren the tight-rope walker and escape artist who steals his Sasquatch tooth. Then Will is invited by Van Horne to complete the railway by hammering the Last Spike (a golden, diamond encrusted spike). When an avalanche strikes the site Will winds up rescuing the last spike from a scoundrel called Brogan, and his father saves Van Horne’s life. Years later, Will’s father is now in charge of The Boundless, and Will is privileged to participate in the train’s inaugural voyage. But Will’s mind is preoccupied with his future—he dreams of becoming an artist while his father heavy-handedly urges him towards a more practical career in architecture or engineering. Needless to say the adventures that ensue change both characters’ minds…

There have been moments—and Will remembers each one—when he has sensed his life shift. He felt it that day in the mountains when he met Maren for the first time. And he feels it again now. The entire world seems much larger and stranger than he could ever have imagined. It now contains not only sasquatch but a muskeg hag—and canvases that can trick time itself. He certainly doesn’t understand it, and he’s not even sure he believes it.

Over the course of a country, Will discovers that he has bravery and talent beyond what he ever believed he was capable of. Along with falling in love, saving lives, and exploring many aspects of human existence—from its poorest roots to the most spectacular possibilities glimpsed through magic – Will comes to understand his father as he too grows up and into a powerful artist.

What I really enjoyed about The Boundless is its constant movement, like a train itself the plot never ceases; there is action and intrigue around every bend and magic in every nook and cranny of Canada’s landscape. My toes also curled in excitement every time Will encountered fabulous historical figures like Sir Sanford Fleming the inventor of Standard Time! I loved the mischief had with time – the book itself, about a historical period, is told in present tense which I rather enjoyed as it firmly grounds us readers in Will’s time, ambience and social setting. Oh! And there is also Samuel Steele the famous Canadian Mountie! But I leave the rest for your own reading pleasure.

I think the most important accomplishment of The Boundless, however, is that it is ever so subtly aware of (post)colonial issues in Canada. Oppel deftly protests destructive racial attitudes through plausible characters that believably reflect their views on the real-life pervasive economic, cultural, and political problems of that era in Canadian history. AND Will doesn’t come off as a holier than though goody-two shoes in the process, something that I think many authors struggle with when trying to untangle the knot of social injustices. HOWEVER! To accomplish this Oppel jumps perspectives from Will to Brogan (and once to a flying paper crane, which I’ll forgive because it was cool), and I’m not sure I enjoyed the sudden shifts as much as I could have… This is a bit from the first Brogan POV:

Brogan strides with east across the tops of cars, heading forward. This is his terrain, this constantly moving, jostling road, and he knows its every landmark. He’s as sure-footed as a mountain goat, despite a limp.

The limp’s not from blasting or laying steel. Years he spend working the railway. Men died around him all the time, especially the Chinamen, but he was charmed. he was the best blaster around and he wasn’t injured until the very last day when the sasquatch grabbed his leg and hurled him into the gorge. He should have been killed…

Notice the difference between this passage and the previous? I understand that the shift in POV helps to flush out Brogan and the state of third (and lower) class citizens, but perhaps if these shifts had been consistent throughout the book? Anyway, this minor issue is not as important as the others raised by this wonderful book. I do like that the reader comes to understand that there is not clear “good” and “evil” in the world.

What I didn’t like as much about The Boundless was the oftentimes salience of the intended reading audience (MG, ages 9-13). This meant that, for me, Will did not at all seem as old at 16 but rather nestled quite comfortably as a blush-y, girl-gawking, recently-pubescent 13 year-old in the 19th Century. For other readers however, including the intended audience, this perhaps won’t be a problem.

While I was also thoroughly enthralled by the way Oppel had me believing in Sasquatches and bog witches and the like, I could not jump aboard as he took us into a hodge-podge retelling of (or dalliance with) the The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. For me, Oppel went just a little too far, though art is nicely built into the story and of course the giant hint with the Circus Master’s name, Mr. Dorian. But I just don’t think this was a necessary inclusion. Wilde’s Dorian Gray is in its own right a form of social criticism, and in The Boundless it felt like a bit of a contrivance – a way to get our characters to the meat and the ends of the tale. Perhaps, for a reader unfamiliar with Wilde’s work this would only be one more fascinating magical element of the story, but for me it didn’t work.

All seriousness aside, at its core The Boundless is a rollicking adventure tale incorporating all the best features of Historical Fiction and Adventure! Will, aided by his soul mate, the circus star Maren, eventually earns the right to follow his dreams. A tidy ending perhaps, but Oppel, with The Boundless, is joining the voices of the best children’s stories when he urges readers to follow their dreams by developing their own unique aptitude, for if they do they will surely succeed.

HE SIGNED IT!
HE SIGNED IT!

 

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