A Dream of Steam
James Barry, author
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, aspirations and disappointment, love and heartbreak, peopled by men and women who take control of their destinies in an era of rapid change.
Barry debuts with a clever tale inspired by the true story of a sawmill heist in northern Michigan. In August 1891, William McGrath, operator of McGrath Brothers Lumber Company on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, convinces his brother, Thomas, a ship captain, to invest in upgrades to a steamship and steam-powered mill equipment. William’s hopes to revitalize the sawmill are compromised by John Fitzpatrick, an unscrupulous employee of the Industrial Bank of Detroit, from whom they borrowed the investment capital. Fitzpatrick, the bank president’s son-in-law, has been embezzling to fuel his poker habit. Meanwhile, Thomas tries to steady his brother from heartbreak over his ex-wife Carmina, who left him three years earlier, and who William imagines seeing on the street. After Fitzpatrick revokes the loan, having dug himself deeper into his own problems, the McGraths’ business is in sudden jeopardy, and the brothers resort to desperate measures to save the mill. The impassioned narrative is colored by evocative prose (“night began to paint itself onto the cityscape, softly daubing darkness into twilit corners and alleys, and around buildings made vacant until morning”), and Barry’s integration of different plot threads is impressive. This is a solid debut. (Self-published)