Some of you may be familiar with the story of a man who built a ship on the Saskatchewan Prairies in the 1930s. His intention was to use it to sail to his native Finland. Until I read Dust-ship Glory, Elaine Will’s new adaptation of this story, I wasn’t completely sure if this legend of the prairies was true.
Tom Sukanen was a Finnish Canadian pioneer who in his youth in Finland learned to build the components of wooden ships. He also had some nautical skills. As a young man Sukanen sailed to America to find a steel-working job, but circumstances led him to take up farming. He married and he and his wife had four children. Farm life was not successful where they lived in Minnesota, so he decided to explore opportunities in Canada. He made his way to Saskatchewan on foot in search of his brother, who was already farming somewhere between Saskatoon and Swift Current. Sukanen hoped to obtain free farm land and eventually immigrate to Canada with his family.
During the time he established his homestead, Sukanen became known in the area for his mechanical genius, his robust size and incredible strength. But tragedy ensued when he travelled to Minnesota to gather his family and bring them back. Returning alone, he took up his dream — or obsession — to build a ship to sail back to Finland.
Will’s Dust-ship Glory takes the form of a graphic novel adapted from the 1987 novel of the same name by Andreas Schroeder. The story begins in 1934 with the hull of the ship well underway and nosey, cruel neighbours calling out insults and even trying to vandalize Sukanen’s work. The local priest brings children to witness someone he believes to be “possessed.”
Tom has one friend, Vihtori, who provides what support he can as Tom becomes further isolated and ridiculed. Vihtori may not understand, but he is present. Their friendship is sensitively told.
Will has found a unique way to tell the story, moving back and forth in time, from Tom’s early life with his family in Minnesota beginning in 1906, and as he continues to work on his ship throughout the 1930s and into the ’40s.
Will’s acclaimed first book, Look Straight Ahead, is the autobiographical account of a journey through mental breakdown. Dust-ship Glory is an entirely different project, but Will’s exceptional artistic talent brings this story to life. From the opening pages she effectively illustrates Sukanen’s immense size and difficult disposition. We are drawn into the story as the illustrations capture the action, the characters and the desolation of the Dirty ’30s landscape. Depression needs no words in the two-page spread of a prairie dust storm.
Will’s illustrations present us with a man of determination, anger, brute force, stoicism, at times optimism and gentleness, intelligence, grim obsession and resignation. Despite the fantastical nature of Sukanen’s project, this is not the story of a weird, possessed man, as most of the neighbours see him. It is a compassionate account of someone broken by circumstance who deals with his hardships in a way he alone can understand.
Only Elaine Will could take a true prairie legend from the Dirty ’30s and, through her artistic gifts, tell it in the form of a graphic novel. For those who are not familiar with the genre, Dust-ship Glory, and Look Straight Ahead, would be excellent introductions. I look forward to more of her work.