The Complications of Colour

A runaway slave leaves the U.S. as black and arrives in Canada as white

T he Tinsmith, Tim Bowling’s fourth novel, is a provocative, ambitious, exciting story. It opens on September 17, 1862, at the Battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Maryland: 23,000 Union and Confederate soldiers perished that day, the bloodiest in American history. Anson Baird, a young Union surgeon pushed to the point of exhaustion, treats casualties in hellish, unsanitary conditions while Confederate artillery shells fall around him “like cord upon cord of wood being unloaded.” Nearby, a grisly pile of amputated limbs, much of it his doing, grows in similar fashion. Our senses are soon overwhelmed by the carnage, which Bowling describes most effectively by way of contrast, the sweet scent of alfalfa, for example, set against the stench of “chloroform, blood, and manure,” or the beauty of a bucolic river valley belying the ever-present danger of hurtling Minié balls. Anson imagines a nearby turnpike “stretched taut in the dawn air, like a dew-dripping thread with two massive spiders,” the ravenous opposing armies, “poised at either end.”

Out of the murk of battle strides John, a “tall, calm, long-limbed soldier” in an ill-fitting Federal uniform. Like a merciful angel, John arrives carrying the wounded and returns repeatedly to bring back more. Before long he is assisting Dr. Baird in surgery in the nearby barn that serves as a makeshift hospital. John is in fact a runaway slave whose pale skin lets him pass for white. He is believed to have killed his overseer, a brute named Orlett. The doctor helps John adopt the identity of a dead Union soldier, William Dare, so that he can escape conviction, and afterward Anson and John maintain a long correspondence.

Although structurally more modern, The Tinsmith is deliberately a 19th-century novel, one that strives to replicate the diction and cultural attitudes of the time. Bowling does not shy away from pulling ugly epithets from his characters’ mouths. When John surfaces, almost 20 years after Antietam, as a successful salmon canner on British Columbia’s Fraser River, we see and hear just how enlightened were the whites of that region in 1881. Equal-opportunity bigots, John’s Canadian competition can be heard spouting xenophobic slurs against blacks, Chinese and First Nations people. Nor do natives of the British Isles escape unscathed. Consider: “but the man was too stupid and too English, which amounted to the same thing” or “Craig suppressed a chuckle … already wondering how little he could pay a lazy Irishman to get rid of a nigger.”

John/Dare’s leap from Maryland to British Columbia is a plausible stretch. Bowling grew up fishing the Fraser for salmon: where better to bring his protagonist than a landscape the rhythms and sensations of which the author knows intimately. Here is Anson’s evocative introduction to the river:

Along the slough banks, ranged far apart, a half-dozen giant coniferous trees, their dark green boughs fringed with silver-black raindrops, stood forlorn, each somehow as dominant as the one shattered tree on the battlefield under which he and Dare had first met.

In an effort to reproduce an overheated style popular in the mid 1800s, Bowling can also whip a sentence into a decorative froth. A Scot’s brogue is described as having “a curious jocular quality,” giving the sense of “the sun breaking through a dark bank of cloud.” Later, a man’s face is “as open and welcoming as a sunny morning in the heather.” The same hand that paints the shocking tableau of rictus-masked Orlett lying beside his also dead and kneeling horse gives us an entirely dispensable chapter populated by cartoon-like river men, many of whom we never see again. They drink, smoke and argue for ten static pages, ostensibly to introduce us to John’s new life on the Fraser. On the other hand, we receive expert instruction in battlefield surgery, early photographic procedure, entrepreneurial funereal arts, and salmon fishing and canning. A tin can factory takes on an infernal air, “the explosive clash of red flame against silver, the endless billows of grey smoke and dripping steam” recalling the tumult of battle. Bowling’s cinematic narrative eye will present a scene from different characters’ perspectives or project a silent long-view to capture in pantomime a father’s rage and grief.

It is the problem of race in North America that disturbs the noble heart of this novel. Anson joined the Union cause because he believed in racial equality and the abolition of slavery. John, “a living form” that “needed protection,” is for Anson the embodiment of those principles. Two decades later, in desperate need of an ally and having summoned Anson to Canada—their first meeting since Antietam—John wrestles with the ambiguity of his skin colour. Because John is perceived to be black in Canada and because that perception threatens John’s life there, Anson insists publicly that his friend is white. Afterwards he ponders the ethics of his stand:

What little difference it made then, or now, how much of his blood derived from the negro race. A man was his actions and his courage—surely the war had been waged and won on such a principle, or else the dead were truly husks of a rotted harvest.

If only the complications of colour could so easily be set aside. Like Joe Christmas in William Faulkner’s Light in August, John at times expresses the opposite of expected desire. The self-loathing Christmas, appearing Caucasian, tells people he is black in order to invite hatred, shock and pity. John, on the other hand, wishes his skin would darken so that he might “walk comfortably among men, his head raised, his whole scar open to the air.” Despite his literary experiment in racial nullification, Faulkner knew from lived experience that the colour barrier in America and particularly in the South would not soon be breached, and that one’s sense of belonging to one’s race is derived as much from the way people treat you as from the fact of your skin’s pigment. Bowling intuits this last point, making it the crux of his story.

John/Dare is haunted by memories of horrible punishment and death suffered, at the hands of whites, by those he loved most among his fellow black slaves. And yet, of all people, it was a poor white boy who taught him how to read during lulls in battle. “Blood was well mixed in America, and suffering wasn’t limited to those of a single skin colour, no more than were the nobler qualities.” Kindness can break through entrenched prejudice, Bowling suggests. A benevolent colour blindness is possible.

The black-white divide of antebellum America was barely bridged by four years of bloodletting. Nor can we say that the pain caused by centuries of slavery was now, two decades after the war, shared equally by both races. Nevertheless, this novel does what fiction does best, which is to complicate matters just enough to make us re-examine our beliefs, in this case about history but also about the possibility of moral growth. The Tinsmith delves with guileless courage into the quagmire of past racial conflict, and will be read and recalled with that admirable quality in mind.