“What Blooms From Dust,” by James Markert

James Markert

Reviewed by Richard Allen

Jeremiah Goodbye steps onto the road, disheveled and confused. He absentmindedly fingers the coin in his right hand. I shouldn’t be alive. Minutes ago, he was strapped to a chair waiting to be electrocuted for a murder spree that he may or may not have committed. His protests of innocence were met by uninterested ears in the police station. He had long ago accepted his fate. But now a seemingly random act of God had left him as the only survivor to emerge from the wreckage of what was once the police station and given him back his freedom. Despite the fuzziness in his head and his dire need of a drink and a bath, he seems to have escaped harm. Not knowing what else to do, he decides to leave what happens next to chance, as he has throughout his life. He stares at the coin in his hand and thinks, Heads for Guymon, a city that he had never visited before, but also one where he may be able to start over, or Tails for Nowhere, the city where he grew up. A simple flip of the coin begins his adventure.

What Blooms From Dust is a fascinating novel from author James Markert. Markert, who has a history degree from the University of Louisville, has previously released All Things Bright and Strange, The Angel’s Share and A White Wind Blew. Throughout his novels, Markert incorporates his love for history into his fictional settings, lending an air of authenticity to his words and helping the reader to believe that his towns and characters could have existed.

What Blooms From Dust begins innocently enough. Wilmington and his pregnant wife, Amanda, set off on a train in 1908 to chase the promise of a new life in Majestic, Oklahoma. Unfortunately, they arrive only to find that they were deceived. In place of the promised elegant town is a vast plain field. Still, not one to be deterred, Wilmington’s anger eventually leads to acceptance as he and the others make roots and harvest the land. The years pass, and the town thrives—but ominous signs have appeared. The land became stingy, the crops refused to grow—still the villagers pushed on, working the soil despite its protests. The once prosperous town falls to dust and despair.

Dust is a significant part of What Blooms From Dust, coating every page with its unrelenting march. The book can be dreary—in a meaningful way. Markert uses the dust as both a villain and a motivator. Some want to give up, worn down by the unending march of the sand. Others refuse, content in their belief that brighter days are ahead. Then there’s Jeremiah Goodbye, who doesn’t much care either way. He’s just using the town to hide out from the law.

That is, until he meets Peter, a young boy from dire circumstances with a mother who no longer wants to care for him.  An odd pairing at first, but sometimes opposites are needed to provide balance. Their path eventually leads Jeremiah to reunite with his old flame, Ellen, and his estranged twin brother, Josiah, both of whom he left on rather precarious terms. What happened to this family? Why does Jeremiah’s coin, an heirloom from his childhood that he flips before making any important choice, always seem to know what will happen next? Will the dust end up swallowing the town and its inhabitants?

These are the questions Markert asks the reader—the mysteries he creates as pasts are slowly revealed and friendships, love, and rivalries are made and broken.  All the while the sand continues to pelt the community and the reader.

The characters Markert creates are relatable; we all know a Josiah and a Jeremiah, we all have our own Ellen, Wilmington, and Peter. We’re all sometimes the outcast and the do-gooder, the hopeful and the hopeless, the righteous and the no-good. Despite being set nearly a hundred years in the past, the story and characters still resonate with modern audiences.  What Blooms From Dust challenges your notions of how a family should operate and asks, Where does the line get drawn between sibling rivalry and sibling love? The intense focus on what happens to good people when faced with so much bad is a key theme here.

Jeremiah, as a central character, has a great arc. Neither good nor bad, at least no more than any one of us, he holds the story together and brings us, little by little, into his world. He may not like us being in there, but he accepts it without much of a struggle. While other characters are more open, Jeremiah draws the reader. Peter, mysterious and quiet, plays nicely opposite the brash Jeremiah and the stubborn Josiah, while allowing the quiet and unassuming Ellen to serve as a mother figure to a boy she barely knows but feels inexplicably connected to. Wilmington, as the patriarch of the family, plays his part well while also allowing a bit of emotion to seep through. He’s tough on his sons, but understands their differences. Once proud, he learns through tribulation that life isn’t always clear-cut.

I appreciate Markert’s focus on what happens when good people have had too much. What happens when the hopeful have given up. It’s a feeling so many can relate to, and Markert allows us to both understand and loathe the characters’ actions at the same time.

What Blooms From Dust is thought provoking, entertaining and ultimately satisfying. The oppression you feel while reading it is part of its charm. The dust-covered town and its people become worn down just as you do, leading both you and the townspeople to fear there will be no happy ending. There might not be. But those who read this book will appreciate Markert’s knack for storytelling, his fleshed out characters, and his ability to make you think.

While heavy, this book has wide appeal. Neither too adult for early teenagers nor too childish for adults, it hits a sweet spot where those in their teenage years on up will appreciate the novel’s message and be roped in by the story’s world.  Those who appreciate early to mid 1900’s history and stories chronicling the building of America, despite a fictionalized setting, will find the most appeal in this book.

What Blooms From Dust is published by Thomas Nelson. James Markert lives with his wife and two children in Louisville, Kentucky. He won an IPPY Award for The Requiem Rose, which was later published as A White Wind Blew, a story of redemption in a 1929 tuberculosis sanatorium, where a faith-tested doctor uses music therapy to heal the patients. Markert is also a tennis pro and has coached dozens of kids who’ve gone on to play college tennis in top conferences like the Big 10, the Big East, and the ACC.

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