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Review: The Dream Peddler, by Martine Fournier Watson
Penguin, 2019. 370 pp. $16

Sometime in the early 1900s, a stranger comes to an unnamed American rural town. His name is Robert Owens, and the winter day he arrives, a young boy goes missing. Robert, though a newcomer, volunteers to help search, which creates a favorable first impression. He also dresses well, has courtly manners that people aren’t used to, and an engaging, unpretentious acceptance of human foibles, a trait that, as events prove, they’re used to even less.

Naturally, they wonder why he’s come, and whether he has designs on the widow in whose boardinghouse he lives. He doesn’t. He’s a traveling salesman, of sorts, and his product is dreams. Once word gets out, which happens slowly, he’s taken at first for a huckster and a charlatan, but he’s neither. Not once does he push his product (which comes in the form of colored liquids in glass vials), nor does he promise the sun, moon, and stars. When prospective customers approach him, he asks what they’d like to dream, decides whether he can help, and, if the answer is yes, mixes his elixirs for them, offering a money-back guarantee.

Freud’s first version of The Interpretation of Dreams, 1899, in a print run of 600 copies that took eight years to sell out (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Robert’s an itinerant psychologist, in other words, and the town needs his services. Animosities and untapped desires abound, none of which must be thought of, or, heaven forbid, spoken about. Indirectly, Robert encourages his customers, who include the lovelorn, frustrated, bereft, ambitious, and heartbroken, to feel what has long lurked inside them. Not everybody believes him when he explains that dreams come from within and can’t predict the future, only provide a test version of it. They think he’s selling what they don’t have but can somehow acquire.

I love this premise and what Watson does with it. She’s made Robert a prophet of desire, and beneath his tolerant, wise exterior lies a deep shame and, perhaps, moral cowardice. He represents the notion that desire alone never hurts; it’s what you do with it that counts. I agree wholeheartedly, but many people don’t, and Watson’s fictional town is no exception, starting with the preacher, who believes Robert does Satan’s work.

Consequently, despite the liberation that many customers experience from their dreams, you sense that Robert will wear out his welcome, and you may even guess how that unfolds. Nevertheless, the how matters more than the what, for The Dream Peddler fairly glows with feeling, a narrative as irresistible as I’ve read in a long while. With great subtlety, Watson renders the complexities of small-town rural life, while modernity licks around the edges, scaring some and enticing others. I said the novel takes place in the early 1900s, but the only substantial clue is the lone automobile in town, a Ford belonging to the doctor, presumably a Model T. The way in which a few characters itch to see the world while others prefer to keep it at bay depicts a state of mind about to change: the twentieth century and its marvels and tragedies.

It’s hard to believe that The Dream Peddler is a first novel. Even without the sure-handed characterizations and storytelling, the prose would suggest an experienced pen. Consider this passage, about a man out cutting ice alongside his horse, Martha, to store in his ice house for the summer (itself a wonderful detail):

Charles came into that familiar thinning of the trees, and then the vastness of the ice spread out before him. Far away it was uncertain, rippled in places from the water’s unseen movement, but here where he stood closer to shore it was still thick and faithful. Martha walked onto it without fear, nostrils quivering in the cold… Ice cutting was hard work, but Charles enjoyed it. He was always enthralled by the white precision of the blocks as he lifted them from their hold, like marble destined for the walls of some exotic palace in a land he would never see.

Reading the name Robert Owens, I couldn’t help think of Robert Owen, the nineteenth-century Welsh industrialist and social reformer who founded a short-lived utopian socialist community in Indiana. Does Watson’s Robert have a utopian vision of desire? Unfortunately, yes.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.