Grim, gritty and engrossing, this historical fiction novel examines class and women’s rights against a backdrop full of pivotal moments from turn of the 20th century.

Grim, gritty and engrossing, this historical fiction novel examines class and women’s rights against a backdrop full of pivotal moments from turn of the 20th century.

B.C. author Danial Neil debuted as a novelist in 2006 with The Killing Jars, a story set in Saskatchewan that explores family and mental illness.

Dominion of Mercy is his fifth published novel. It’s set largely in the actual former mining town of Anyox on the coast of British Columbia, but opens in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1917.

At only 18 years of age, headstrong lass Mary Stewart has turned to prostitution to support her father and younger sister.

Street-wise and smart-mouthed, Mary establishes her character from the first pages of the novel when she’s being interrogated after her third arrest for prostitution.

The chief constable warns Mary that this third arrest deems her "a common prostitute. Do you know what that means for an eighteen-year-old girl in nineteen seventeen, Miss Stewart?"

Mary replies sharply, "I suppose it means you would rather I be an uncommon prostitute, sir."

Fortunately, Mary’s uncle, a well-connected solicitor with political ambitions, steps in. He’ll provide for Mary’s family so she can quit the sex trade. But in return, Mary must train as a nurse and leave her home for the mining town of Anyox.

"This is an opportunity, a chance to start over on a good foot, if you do your part," her uncle tells her pompously.

While Mary knows her uncle really just wants to cover up a scandal that could damage his political ambitions, she’s practical enough to accept his offer.

To her surprise, she discovers a calling for nursing and a fondness for her adopted community.

But a past like Mary’s isn’t easy to escape, and living on the Canadian frontier has challenges she never anticipated.

Readers of may be reminded of fellow Canadian Leslie Howard’s 2020 novel The Brideship Wife, a historical fiction saga that also examines the immigrant experience from a woman’s point of view.

Like Howard, Neil convincingly recreates his settings and keeps a sharp focus on social injustices and women’s roles in society. This is especially apparent in his recreation of Anyox.

Neil highlights the brutal working conditions and overall power of the mining company and contrasts the beautiful scenery of the coast with the smog and pollution from the smelter.

The novel is rich with real-life historical details, such as anecdotes about Cape Scott, a once-thriving Danish community off the Canadian west coast.

However, at times these details overwhelm the plot, distracting rather than adding to Mary’s story.

It also seems strange that with his devotion to Canadian history, Neil devotes almost no time to Indigenous history or the effects of the mining industry on First Nation communities — something Howard sharply critiqued in The Brideship Wife.

Neil triumphs in his portrayal of Mary, who defies most stereotypes.

Unlike the classic trope introduced by Charles Dickens in his 1838 novel Oliver Twist, Mary is not a fallen woman torn apart by Christian guilt for her sinful ways.

Neither is Mary feeding an addiction, or is hard-headed, or trying to live a high-end businesslike lifestyle, defying more current literary trends about the sex trade.

Mary despises prostitution, but sees it as an unfortunate necessity and ultimately refuses to let it define her.

She’s quick to stand up for others and to question society’s mores, even if it brings her more enemies than friends.

As one acquaintance tells Mary wryly, "I don’t despise you. I just don’t think the world is ready for you, Mary."

This world is ready, and it needs more of Mary.

Kathryne Cardwell is a Winnipeg writer.