By Bob Armstrong
Five Star/Gale, 371 pages, $33
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After the Civil War, American society expanded rapidly westward, into the familiar frontiers found in the Westerns of film and literature. Legal and illegal opportunities brought all levels of society together into new, often difficult circumstances hoping for advancement.
In the late 1870s, three formidably talented kids converge on Deadwood, S.D. in this exciting, episodic tale from Winnipeg writer, actor and park naturalist (and Winnipeg Free Press reviewer) Bob Armstrong.
The prodigies at the heart of this story make their circuitous ways to the law-challenged setting of the novel’s last half in a series of vignettes that also work as shorter narratives, engaging the reader with vivid description, historical detail and American culture and folklore.
Daniel McCormack, a boy of the streets in New York City blessed with hyper-acute visual and spatial awareness, is recruited into the gang of thieves run by Big Jim McGuire and the enigmatic Mrs. Kleinschmidt. They train him to be a prodigious sharpshooter, muscle for their nefarious plans to run a union-organization scam on western miners.
Lincoln Henry, son of freed slaves in Reconstruction-era Tennessee, has an innate understanding of geometry and physics, "figuring out come-togethers and big-littles," before an early teacher tells him, "You mean angles and ratios, Lincoln."
His father’s tragic experience with developing technology brings Lincoln under the tutelage of the sympathetic mechanic McTaggart, who continues his education repairing and inventing transportation and mining technology, including the realization that such innovations can also be used violently.
Lillian Mandeville, whose father was killed fighting with Custer in the Civil War, has difficulty finding her métier with her Uncle Stanislas’ travelling circus, until her ability to communicate with canines makes her the star of the show.
Lily’s dog-savant talent is a bit of a stretch compared to Daniel and Lincoln’s more plausible abilities, but the circus provides both interesting minor characters and many narrative possibilities which Armstrong exploits to drive the novel’s building action and suspense.
Minor characters, some more developed than others, support the three main prodigies, whose exploits both complicate and resolve a series of tragic-comic situations leading to the expected, but unexpectedly complicated, climactic shootout and denouement.
While Hearst (the mine owner), Boone May (his enforcer), Sheriff Bullock of Deadwood and members of Lincoln’s family and Big Jim’s gang provide interesting flashes of character complications, the focus is on the three prodigies.
However, the "wolfer" Josiah Stuart, whose "religious" commitment to killing wolves conflicts with Lily’s proclivities, and Segal, a fast-talking sidekick to Daniel’s developing "Bulldog Kid" gunman persona, give chilling and sentimental flourishes to the plot.
Another potential prodigy, Vera Bly, daughter of a frontier printer and newspaperman, bucks her father’s hope that she will have a more traditional career for a woman, and begins chronicling Daniel, Lincoln and Lily’s adventures in a dime novel. Her continued career could be Armstrong’s route to sequels of Prodigies.
Considering the fraught times in which the book is set, there is perhaps less racism aimed at African or Indigenous Americans than might be expected, although what is there is startling enough. An aboriginal band’s connection with Lily over a wounded wolf, and their leader, Dreams of Horses, show disparate cultures interacting appropriately.
In general, the main characters are unexpectedly, even heroically, inclusive in spite of the tremendous cultural baggage with which they must have been raised.
The "Wild West" would certainly have benefited from more youthful idealists like the prodigious main characters of Armstrong’s entertaining novel.
Bill Rambo teaches at the Laureate Academy inSt. Norbert.
Bob Armstrong will discuss Prodigies with Sue Sorensen as part of Thin Air 2021: The Winnipeg International Writers Festival, on Friday, Oct. 1 at 7 p.m. at McNally Robinson Booksellers’ Grant Park location. The event will also be streamed live to YouTube. For more information see thinairwinnipeg.ca.
By Bob Armstrong
Five Star/Gale, 371 pages, $33
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