Retribution and Redemption: A Review of The Bully of Order

The Bully of Order

The Bully of Order by Brian Hart

Publication Date: September 2, 2104

Publisher: Harper Collins

Genre: Historical Fiction



Set in a logging town on the lawless Pacific coast of Washington State at the turn of the twentieth century, a spellbinding novel of fate and redemption—told with a muscular lyricism and filled with a cast of characters Shakespearean in scope—in which the lives of an ill-fated family are at the mercy of violent social and historical forces that tear them apart.

Keen to make his fortune, Jacob Ellstrom, armed with his medical kit and new wife, Nell, lands in The Harbor—a mud-filled, raucous coastal town teeming with rough trade pioneers, sawmill laborers, sailors, and prostitutes. But Jacob is not a doctor, and a botched delivery exposes his ruse, driving him onto the streets in a plunge toward alcoholism. Alone, Nell scrambles to keep herself and their young son, Duncan, safe in this dangerous world. When a tentative reunion between the couple—in the company of Duncan and Jacob’s malicious brother, Matius—results in tragedy, Jacob must flee town to elude being charged with murder.

Years later, the wild and reckless Duncan seems to be yet another of The Harbor’s hoodlums. His only salvation is his overwhelming love for Teresa Boyerton, the daughter of the town’s largest mill owner. But disaster will befall the lovers with heartbreaking consequences.

And across town, Bellhouse, a union boss and criminal rabble-rouser, sits at the helm of The Harbor’s seedy underbelly, perpetuating a cycle of greed and violence. His thug Tartan directs his pack of thieves, pimps, and murderers, and conceals an incendiary secret involving Duncan’s mother. As time passes, a string of calamitous events sends these characters hurtling towards each other in an epic collision that will shake the town to its core. (from Goodreads)

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One of the reasons I chose to read this book is because of its setting and time period. The story takes place in the late 1800’s in the Pacific Northwest, and Hart paints a vivid verbal picture of the harsh conditions the characters in a lumber mill town called “The Harbor” face daily in their efforts to earn a living and make a home for themselves. In the first chapter, readers are warned about and welcomed into this callous fictionalized by one of the main characters, Jacob Ellstrom:

“You say San Franciso is a rough town? New York? Shanghai? Our washerwomen are tougher than their meanest ax-murdering thugs. Our smallest, puniest orphan can beat Jim Corbett at arm wrestling.”


“Soon men again filled the streets. Look at them, all of them, beasty little slints. They landed here: torn, dirty and scared; starving mostly, flashing their frantic grins and yellowpine teeth. Do your best, gents, and welcome to the Big Show. ..Welcome to the white man’s burden, the slaughter of war ponies, the poisoning of the well. We’re doing it here, and we’ll take more if you got them.”


“A body is a mob, a convulsion, an orgasm of destitute rabble. List to it breathe. Feed it. Keep it appeased, always. It’s written on the wall: The Harbor Welcomes You.”

Hart does a great job of immersing readers into the hustle and bustle of a community where men toil long hours in the sawmills, sailors cause a ruckus, and criminal activity abounds.  Part of what makes the world-building so effective is that the story relies upon a third-person POV and is narrated by multiple characters giving readers a wider lens to peer into this gritty, cold, and brutal world and the lives that crumble under its weight. The pages are filled with betrayal, murder, heart-break, and remorse.

The two different types of POVs used to tell the story are another aspect of the book that I found interesting.  Each chapter of the story is narrated from a particular character’s perspective, and Hart uses a first person POV to give Jacob, his wife Nell, and their child, Duncan a voice. By using a first-person POV, Hart invites readers to connect on a deeper emotional level with this family. However, when the story’s viewpoint shifts to other characters in the community, the author uses a third-person limited omniscient POV creating some distance between the reader and the character.  Why the switch? Perhaps to emphasize that the members of the Ellstrom family are the central characters that drive the story.

Hart has created a cast of flawed characters from a range of socio-economic classes whose lives intersect in indelible ways that are often spurred by weakness, desperation, and violence.  I didn’t care for many of these characters although I was interested in their backstories and what lay in store for them as the plot progressed.  It’s hard to connect with self-centered characters whose greed and brutality overshadow any redeeming traits they might have. However, I don’t see this as a weakness in Hart’s character development. I think his intention is to show how hardened and indifferent people can become living in this environment.

Since the novel’s focus is on Jacob Ellstrom’s family, I really tried to like to empathize with their characters and their quest to start a new life together in The Harbor.  While I was saddened to see their family fall apart, I didn’t feel much sympathy for Jacob or his wife, Nell. Jacob is a charlatan, posing as medical doctor building his practice and his place in the community from a foundation of lies. He is a weak man willing to abandon his wife and baby to save himself instead of taking a stand and protecting his family. Although Nell is a victim in many ways, she also makes poor choices that cause me to lose any sympathy I might have had for her. Their young son Duncan is the one who pays the price for his parents’ cowardice.  He grows to be a rebellious, angry young man, quick to lash out at others, even those few who try to offer support.  However, no matter how difficult his childhood was, it doesn’t excuse his misdeeds.  All in all, I didn’t respect any of these characters. Loyalty, even within families, is scarce or non-existent.

Hart delves into the conflicts and failures of father-son relationships not only with Jacob and Duncan, but also with Matius and Jonas, and Mr. Boyerton and his son, Oliver. The author explores the depth of each son’s deep-seated anger and the triggers that bring it to light. Duncan’s hatred of his father and the inner turmoil he experiences because of it is the most apparent in the book and is examined with brutal honesty:

“It wasn’t easy to hate him—he was my father, after all—but I persevered, for Mother’s sake. I spent long nights calculating slow death. I sharpen blades and load guns, but all of it ended in a dream. I hated how deeply I could sleep when I lay down plotting patricide. Morning arrived with memories of the old man stomping around the kitchen, and it felt like my own blood pouring out of me, aching as it went. I wondered sometimes if it would hurt more or less not to kill him, to let him live, because I feared, ultimately that I couldn’t do it.”

Hart also explores themes of forgiveness and redemption that make this a thought-provoking read.  The story has a nebulous resolution, leaving the reader to speculate about what happens to some of the central characters and what their future might hold for them. Usually, I like clear, tidy endings, but in this case, I think it’s appropriate for each individual reader to decide what happens to the characters at the end. I’m sure readers will have mixed and varied opinions about what type of resolution these characters deserve.

Overall, reading the book was a slow but engaging experience for me. At times, I wondered about the inclusion of some scenes and their relevance to the overall plot. In some places, the author uses flashbacks to help the reader understand a character’s motivations, but the transitions to the past events aren’t always smooth. Some of the more emotionally explosive and dangerous scenes lacked the suspense and intensity I anticipated and were somewhat anticlimactic for me. Despite these shortcomings, I would recommend the book to those who enjoy historical fiction and aren’t put off by the story’s dark atmosphere.

Source: I received an ARC of this book from the author to provide an honest review. Since the quotes used were taken from a pre-published book, they may have changed or been omitted from the final published version.





Brian HartBrian Hart was born in central Idaho in 1976. In 2005 he won the Keene Prize for Literature, one of the largest student literary prizes in the country. He received an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers in 2008, and is the author of the novel Then Came the Evening. He lives in Texas with his wife and daughter. (from the ARC of The Bully of Order)

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Purchase Links for The Bully of Order

Amazon: The Bully of Order: A Novel | IndieBound |  Barnes & Noble

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As I read Hart’s Bully of Order, I was reminded of Robert Frost’s narrative poem entitled ‘Out, Out-‘ which tells the story of a sudden, tragic death of a boy. The poem is based on a true event, the death of a sixteen-year-old in New Hampshire in 1910.

The title of the play alludes to a passage from Shakespeare’s Macbeth upon learning that his wife is dead:

“Out, out brief candle / Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing” (Macbeth V, v, 23-28).

Although the story Frost tells in this poem is different from Hart’s, they share similarities. Many of the characters are emotionally detached towards each other. During this time period, life was difficult and many people were primarily driven by self-preservation. In both of these stories, the work is hard and dangerous; one’s life could be snuffed out in an instant. Yet, the characters in both works display a cold indifference to the value of  human life.

‘Out, Out—’

The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
And nothing happened: day was all but done.
Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work.
His sister stood beside him in her apron
To tell them ‘Supper.’ At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws knew what supper meant,
Leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap—
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all—
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart—
He saw all spoiled. ‘Don’t let him cut my hand off—
The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!’
So. But the hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then—the watcher at his pulse took fright.
No one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

3 comments on “Retribution and Redemption: A Review of The Bully of Order

  1. Pingback: Brian Hart, author of The Bully of Order, on tour September 2014 | TLC Book Tours

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