Preview: Dust-Ship Glory

Written and Illustrated by Elaine M. Will

Adapted from the docu-novel by Andreas Schroeder (2011, University of Athabasca Press, Regina, SK)

Published by Renegade Arts Entertainment

Release Date: February 14, 2017 (Diamond ID: DEC171759)

It’s not often that find a graphic novel that resonates so close to home. I remember the stories that Grandpa Dave used to tell about growing up in Southwest Saskatchewan during the Great Depression in the 1930’s. I remember him telling about how the neighbours had a Ford Model-T but they couldn’t afford gasoline so they rigged a yoke out of bits and pieces so it was still useful when pulled behind the farm draft horses. I remember him telling us how resourceful they were (we’re still a proud Scottish family) and how they would try to make something from nothing, because random bits and pieces of nothing was all you had. I remember the stories of community, and how the worst of times brought the best of people together, how everyone cooperated to bring in what small amount of crop there was for the year.

I can find the spirit of these stories in Elaine Will’s Dust-Ship Glory. Desperation. Resourcefulness. Community. Hope.

Dust-Ship Glory tells the true story of Tommi Sukanen, a Finnish immigrant who constructed a large ship in the middle-of-nowhere during the dustbowl of the Great Depression, with the hopes of sailing to freedom. Where that freedom is, we’re not exactly sure. Word travels fast in small communities, and gossip brings people together. It’s not long before the community, and beyond, gets word of Tom’s endeavours where he is ridiculed for spending his time and limited resources single-mindedly and obsessively building a large ship in the middle of the barren, dusty prairie.

Speckled throughout the story are flashbacks of Tom’s previous life in Minnesota, with a wife and a family. The Depression is encroaching. Crops are starting to fail, there’s less and less yield every year, but Tom and his wife Aili have a young family to raise and are attempting to do the best they can. We gets hints at Tom’s eccentricity (and eventual mental illness) as he spends most of his days dreaming up new solutions to problems, such as a self-feeding and watering system for the farm animals, instead of tending to the immediate needs, such as their crops and their livestock. We learn of his strained relationship with his wife, and why he was forced to leave his family for Canada, and how he ended up in Manybones.

Tom finds moments of friendship with a young boy who was dared by his friends to disturb the odd old man, and moments of community initiated by his brother Aleksis. We begin to see how his obsessiveness in building this oddity wears on his body, and his community. In the early parts of the story, I started to think to myself, “Why should the community care and gossip about this? He’s not hurting anyone or himself.”, but as the story progressed, I slowly began to change my perspective. This need to keep his hands and mind busy had moved beyond simply building something very out of place by common convention.

Will’s illustrations flawlessly tell this story. Tom is portrayed as a tall, strong, broad, hulk of a person–almost larger than life–in the early parts of the story, but you can see the subtle, then striking, changes to his face and body as this project takes it’s toll on his physicality, but also his spirit. It wasn’t until a second leaf through a lot of the images that I really started to take note of the intentional changes to Tom’s facial structure. By the time he ends up as not much more than a skeleton of a man, you have to stop and think, “Well, when did this happen?”. Will’s ability to illustrate this brings another layer to the character, hidden beneath the narrative, worth further discovery.

This is a gorgeous and personal story. It will definitely generate discussion.

Who I would recommend it to:

  • History teachers and educators, and Saskatchewan/Canadian history buffs. This book belongs on the shelves of anyone looking for resources to teach Canadian history in the early 1900’s. Although it’s not a historical story, there are a lot of embedded elements that could be used as teaching tools, especially at the middle and secondary levels. (My Aunt Lisa would LOVE this book. I think it was written for her…)
  • Anyone looking for a character-driven narrative, exploring the human spirit and what can keep an individual going, perhaps to their detriment, during hard times.
  • Book Clubs looking for a graphic novel to discuss. This is an odd recommendation, but I could see a lot of smart, fantastic, in-depth discussions of this story, this setting, and these characters over a glass of wine among friends. There’s a lot to unpack in these pages.

Thanks to Elaine Will for providing me a preview copy of Dust-Ship Glory for this review!

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