“Dreams of Arcadia” by Brian Porter

In Dreams of Arcadia (Legacy Book Press 2023), Brian Porter transports readers inside the world of a rural veterinarian with spectacular descriptions of the Texas countryside and riveting details concerning the care of cattle and other animals. But the novel is also the story of Nate Holub’s family and the uncovering of long-held secrets. Think James Herriot’s All Things Bright and Beautiful crossed with the mystery of Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone. Dreams of Arcadia is a story of one man’s return to the land in search of his and his family’s past, in search of a less rushed, more idyllic life.

Fond memories of his father draw Nate back to the rural area where much of his extended family still lives. Nate leaves behind his job as a Houston vet, along with his mother, ex-wife and two daughters, for a completely different lifestyle only a two-hour drive away. It might as well be a different planet. Initially, he thinks the pace might be more relaxing. Maybe navigating the traffic is easier, but the pace of the veterinary work proves grueling and challenging. Humor often crops up in the scenes where Nate grapples with animals who resist all his attempts to control them.

Nate’s father was killed in a car accident when Nate was young. The longer Nate interacts with the locals, the more he becomes convinced that accident was more complex than he was led to believe. Hints come from all corners: a reclusive uncle, a resentful cousin, the town patriarch, a friendly aunt, and a sprite-like cousin who exists in a world of her own.

Porter does a masterful job of contrasting the natural beauty of the Texas landscape with other aspects of the small town that are depressingly run-down. For example, here’s a description of an uncle’s house: “Two tall shutterless windows flanked the door, eyes staring at him, the edge of the sagging porch a mouth, curled into a sneer.”  Yet on the approach to the house, Nate notices “Thick ruby clusters of phlox and yellow squaw-weed encircled Alois’s mailbox.” In addition to this natural beauty, behind this decrepit home is a spectacular garden full of blooms and art:

The terrain descended sharply toward a pond surrounded by towering sycamores. Stone pathways stepped down the hillside and crisscrossed between planting beds thick with roses of all colors, shapes and sizes and other beds dense with blooms—lantana, winecups, daffodils, spiderwort, daisies. The blooms cascaded over low walls of white limestone. . . Between the planting beds stood masses of rusted metal, and upon inspection, he realized they were sculptures made from parts of old farm implements, tools, and other machinery, all welded, wired, and fitted together in intricate and creative ways. . . . The garden wrapped him in its embrace, making him feel strangely at ease.

One has to wonder why a family would put so much effort into creating this amazing garden and so little into maintaining their abode. Wisely, Porter doesn’t try to answer all questions, leaving some of his characters ambiguous.

One lovely aspect of the novel is Nate’s daughters visiting  the countryside. They meet their extended family and learn about their father’s job, country culture, and their family’s roots. Readers are left feeling that not only Nate’s life has changed by his relocation, but his daughters will gain from his decision, too.

Dreams of Arcadia is sometimes heart-warming and humorous; and others, mysterious and edgy. At all times, it is well-written, expertly paced, and engaging. In short, a great read well worth anyone’s time.

Brian Porter

Brian Porter lives in College Station, Texas, where he works as a veterinary pathologist. He previously worked in veterinary practice and once taught high school chemistry. Dreams of Arcadia is his first novel.


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