Goodreads: The Boundless
Published: April 2014
The world’s longest train, the seven-mile Boundless, is set to make her maiden voyage across the Canadian wilderness and young Will Everett, riding first-class, prepares for the trip of a lifetime. But the Boundless also carries hidden treasure onboard, and when a murderer sets his sights on the gold, it is up to Will and his friend Maren, escape artist and tightrope walker, to save the day.
The Boundless takes readers on a breathtaking journey across the Canadian wilderness, weaving folklore with historical fiction to create a world where the men who built the railroad faced not only backbreaking labor and late pay, but also sasquatch, Wendigo, and the hag of the marsh. Suddenly anything and everything seems possible and it is certainly a stroke of good fortune that we were invited along with Will to experience the maiden voyage of the Boundless, one of the world’s marvels. Because if a seven-mile train featuring a pool, shooting deck, and saloon is not enough to explore, more adventure is on the way once Will enlists the help of Zirkus Dante to stop a murderer. The Boundless is a middle-grade dream, one that allows readers to run away with the circus, explore the wild west, and play the hero.
With a book this jam-packed with mystery and adventure, a focus on the characters may seem a tall order, but Kenneth Oppel manages superbly. Though extensive psychological portraits are not given, the actions of each of the characters provide key insights into their personalities and, interestingly for a middle-grade work, many of these insights are tied to observations about the social and class prejudices of the time. Will’s explorations of the Boundless take him through through first, second, and third-class, and also to the colonist cars–the cars reserved for people barely considered people. In each place, the young protagonist (himself a rags-to-riches story) witnesses the crude treatment of the passengers, ranging from cramped quarters to the necessity of buying supplies from crooks and swindlers. His response mirrors that of readers–outrage, disgust, and sadness–but other characters accept the status quo or simply prefer to ignore it. One character, a man of mixed race who descends from the native Canadian peoples whose lands have been taken by the railroad, can barely feel pity for the colonists, since he sees them as one more group of people come to take his ancestors’ land.
Perhaps the most interesting implications of what Will sees are left in silence, however. His father worked to build the railroad, braving avalanches, sasquatch, late pay, and more all so the head of the railroad company could gain the glory and rake in the revenue. Now his father has risen in the world and is driving the Boundless across the tracks he helped lay. Will thinks his father must be ignorant of the conditions in the third-class and colonist cars, or else he would change them. But readers know that the man in charge cannot help but know, so why does a man who used to be poor do nothing to help? Does Mr. Everett believe that others should work their way to the top like he did? Does he feel powerless to effect real change? Is his attitude–the one that allowed him to work in the conditions he did without resentment–the correct one, or can readers sympathize with the villains of this story, the men who worked with Everett and now just want what they think is their fair share of the profits? The answers here are murky and Oppel declines to give any overriding point-of-view.
Despite the heavy topics addressed in this book, the story itself feels light and free. Readers will race with Will across the roof of the train at night, listen with him for the sound of Wendigo in the dark, fly with him and Maren as she unspools her magical reel of tightrope. In The Boundless, the fantastic and the real come together to create a story that kindles the imagination and immerses readers into a strikingly original adventure. If the Boundless ever sets forth once more, I, for one, would like to be on board.