I enjoy reading historical fiction, but only if I know it is as authentic as possible. Nothing makes me more testy than to have an anachronism intrude into a good story. I remember one where two young men arrived by ship in California in 1849 — and got on a train to go to the mines! They were enjoying the view from the railroad car and I was shouting, “But there was no railroad in California until at least 1855!”
You will never experience that emotion reading JoAnn Levy’s For California’s Gold (University Press of Colorado, 2000). As the author of They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush, JoAnn knows the pioneer experience better than anyone.
For California’s Gold is the story of Sarah Daniels of Illinois, whose husband is seized by gold fever. Reluctant to leave her home and concerned for the welfare of her four children, she only goes along because of her husband’s insistence. The overland journey confirms all her worst fears: bad weather, disease, poor food, a desperate struggle to cross the 40-mile desert, and worst of all, fatal accidents.
Once in California, Sarah’s only goal is to earn enough money to get back to the safety of Illinois. But her efforts are plagued by flood and fire. Only gradually does she learn to love her new home and her new friends.
Sarah is a composite of many women who came to California and who shared their experiences in letters and diaries. JoAnn Levy seamlessly weaves together incidents and reflections from the lives of many women to make one unforgettable heroine. I recognized several incidents from the life of Luzena Stanley Wilson, but JoAnn never simply copies. Instead she transforms .
Gracefully written, with beautiful descriptions and exciting incidents, this is a novel that puts all other attempts at pioneer historical romances in the shade. I only wish it was easier to come by. I found my copy in a used bookstore. Your best bet may be inter-library loan. If you have any interest at all in the women of the westward movement, it will be worth it.