Civil war photography would seem a most disparate concept to imbue with fantastic overtones. Yet in The Gallery of His Dreams it clicks—and firmly into place. A gratifying semi-autobiographical overview of one man’s vision, the 1991 novella from Kristine Kathryn Rusch is strong example of why the genre is much more than just dragons and spells.
For those who haven’t guessed, The Gallery of His Dreams is based on the life of Mathew Brady, the most famous of Civil War photographers. Beginning with his youth and on through to old age, Rusch dips into the life of the man, expositing the salient moments of his life in fleeting detail. From meeting his wife to intense battles, trying to make a living as a photographer on the battlefield to the despair of bankruptcy, she clues in on the key moments which helped shape and form Brady, as well as present the man biographies say he was.
But the novella wouldn’t have been nominated for fantasy and science fiction awards if there wasn’t some spin on reality involved. Having a dream of a strange woman in his youth, then meeting her later on the battlefield, the supernatural elements of The Gallery of His Dreams are used to expand the story’s sub-text. The exigencies of war an obvious theme, Rusch goes further to include discussion on the position of photography through time (history or art?) via the proposition ultimately delivered to Brady by the woman. Transcendent to say the least, the conclusion of the man’s story—beyond the biographies—is affirming and meaningful.
About the only drawback (and it is minor given that the other elements are complete) is the prose. Lucid, yes. Fluid, yes. But it largely lacks subtlety. The following is a quote from one of Brady’s meeting with the strange woman and exemplifies the overall tone:
“They will make you great,” said a voice behind him. He turned, and saw a woman. At least he thought it was a woman. Her hair was cropped above her ears, and she wore trousers.
“Who will make me great?” he asked.
“The pictures,” she said. “People will remember them for generations.” He took a step closer to her, but she smiled and touched his palm. The shadows turned black and the dream faded into a gentle, restful sleep.
In the end, The Gallery of His Dreams is a touching fantasy take on the life story of Mathew Brady. Such material a risk to be delivered in dry, biographical fashion, Rusch enhances the narrative, and subsequently the underlying material, with the inclusion of a restrained yet significant piece of the fantastic—a piece that delivers satisfaction in spades at the conclusion. Andy Duncan’s Fortitude and The Chief Designer are more personal and well-written biographical novellas, but neither touches upon art or human conflict through the ages in such a fashion. This is not to say Duncan’s stories are better or worse, only that what Rusch is missing in the style and method department she makes up for in theme. The Gallery of His Dreams is a very rewarding novella.