Reviewed by Genevieve Hartman
Magical realism meets war novel in this exploration of queer love, forestry, and duty to one’s country and oneself.
Rand Brandt has a strange gift: he can grow plants. Not in a gardening sense, though. If he touches a seed, it can grow into a tree or flower in a matter of moments. Rand has always loved nature—campaigning to save a marsh near his hometown as a boy, reading John Muir, joining the US Forestry Service—but this is beyond his wildest imaginings. With the power to grow plants, he can singlehandedly mitigate the ecological harm caused by reckless humans, save Clearwater Marsh, and restore his fellow forester and lover Gabriel’s family’s devastated land.
But as Rand tests the limits of his power, he comes to realize that this gift comes with a price. Everything he grows at an unnatural rate also dies at an unnatural rate. To make matters worse, once his supervisors learn of this power, they ship Rand, Gabriel, and their crew off to France to join a logging crew. Timber is a valuable resource when the world is embroiled in war, and they are eager to put Rand to work growing trees. Now Rand must work to hide his gift’s failures, as well as his relationship with Gabriel, all while desperately trying to fix whatever is causing his plants to die.
Dry Land by B. Pladek is a tighly constructed novel that moves between wonder and despair, capturing the subtle and serious difficulties of life during the Great War as a queer man. From the thrills of Parisian salons and the majesty of the American plains, to the degradation of forests in Gien, homophobic abuse, and the draining effects of war, Pladek weaves together a remarkable, yet painful story.
Rand is plagued by insecurities and often afraid, but he is also a quiet, thoughtful man with a rich interior life. He adores the woods, wants to protect the people he loves, and is determined to use (or not use) his gift to help heal the world. He is a deeply real protagonist, one who must learn how to remain true to himself and his morals, even when outed and manipulated by his superiors and snubbed by peers and family members.
Rand must wrestle endlessly with what he considers to be his failure—the death of everything he grows—and decide how to move forward, how to heal despite these crushing feelings and numerous losses.
In Dry Land, Pladek effortlessly marries magical realism with historical fiction, resulting in a wise and tender debut. Introspective, candid, somehow still daring to be hopeful, this novel would be an excellent addition to your bookshelf. This story is for the romantic, the ecologist, the historian, the artist—really, for everyone.
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