Pros: Great descriptions, strong sense of history, people you can believe in.
Cons: I'd love to know what happened next!
One of the great things about belonging to an online book lover's site is that I have a great resource to tap into when I want something new to read. A fellow member suggested the late author Gwen Bristow (1903-1980) for a good source of novels set in United States, especially in California. The first of them that I read was Calico Palace, set in San Francisco during the Gold Rush of the late 1840's.
Now I've taken on Jubilee Trail, which I can happily say, is just as good as Calico Palace, and filled with characters that are deeply drawn and with motivations and actions that are entirely believable for the time and place.
The story opens in 1844, and in New York City, young Garnet Cameron is trying to decide what it is that she wants to do with her life. She is a well-brought up young woman, educated at a young ladies' school, and expected to enter the same high society that her parents inhabit. But Garnet refuses each of the suitors that are presented to her, finding flaws in each one, and not the spark of excitement that she was hoping for. But when she meets Oliver Hale, she is struck by his tales of the far west, in a place called California. It also helps that he's rather good-looking and charming, and evidently, just smitten with her. It takes some doing, but her parents relent, and let Garnet marry him, and Garnet sets off on the long trail to California.
Their first stop is in New Orleans, getting ready to stock up for the long trail ahead, and Garnet sees a singer in a dance hall. Vivid, with an attitude that says take no prisoners, Florinda is a stunningly beautiful woman that appears to be the opposite of Garnet in every way with her white blond hair and blue eyes. Both of the women take a shine to each other, an advantage that will come in handy when Florinda appeals to Oliver and Garnet to help her get out of New Orleans. It's the first taste of real adventure for Garnet, and she discovers that it's different than anything she's experienced before.
Leaving New Orleans, they travel to Independence, Missouri and the start of the Santa Fe Trail, and Garnet finds herself in a world that utterly unlike New York City. As the only American woman in the long trains of wagons of traders heading to the Mexican outpost, she's treated with a curious deference by the rough teamsters, causing her to lean more on Oliver. But with her growing confidence and growing wonder for the West, Garnet is turning into someone that she hardly recognizes.
When they reach the town of Santa Fe, and begin to get ready for the last push onward to California, things start to change. For one, Garnet meets the taciturn John Ives, Oliver's partner who will be riding with them on the Jubilee trail. And it seems that Oliver has been keeping secrets of some sort from her, riddles that Garnet can't figure out at all. Finally, Florinda reappears, still her irrepressible self, and the friendship between Garnet and she grows. It's going to be useful, for Garnet has found herself pregnant and having someone that she can actually turn to will prove to be what saves her.
For as Garnet finds out to her dismay, California isn't quite the place of dreams that Oliver spun so convincingly...
I was very impressed by this novel, finding it richly written and textured. The story is filled with encounters with people, whether they be native, Mexican or American, all of whom have a story to tell. The secondary characters are just as finely drawn, from Oliver's brother Charles, a Russian expatriate named The Handsome Brute, the men on the trail, especially Silky and Texas, all of whom will have important roles in the upcoming story. The dialogue rings true, from Florinda's slangy, somewhat vulgar speech, and the man who will keep bedeviling Garnet from the moment they meet, John, who may look as rough as the trail, but is polished and cold in his ways.
The biggest draw to me was the author's knowledge of the Southwest and the way that she drew me into the story. It may have started off slowly, but by the time I hit the mid-point, I couldn't put the book down as I wanted to find out what happened next. The history of the time, filled with the conflicts between Mexico and the fledgling United States over Texas and California is used to great effect, and never gets dry or pedantic.
This is one that I can happily recommend to anyone interested in the American West, and who wants their historical fiction to be richly detailed and full of authentic touches. Five stars overall, and very much recommended.
Many thanks to the Books CL Pestyside for adding this to the database for me!
Other books by Gwen Bristow:
1950, 2006; The Chicago Review Press, Inc.