Having blazed a history of New York in verse (New York on Fire, 1989—not reviewed), Obenzinger now offers stories from San Francisco's colorful past, superbly twisting fact and fancy in a delightful, memorable concoction. Drawn from the imaginary 19th-century Victor Archives, the historical highlights that the author has incorporated here range from details of early contact between Franciscan missionaries and the Indians they were intent on converting to an uncommon trial by fire in the 1906 Great Quake and conflagration. Whether in a scene of punishing a native for his audacity in kissing a white woman in 1776, or in an episode about experiencing the mind-altering conditions of the San Francisco Fire, themes of sex and violence predominate. A Mission father notes satisfaction when triumphing over more peace-loving brothers in 1799; a man recalls witnessing as a child the murders of his sister and brother, and hearing echoes of the violence—which included the execution of a man possibly innocent of the crime—in a wall of the house; and a woman is accused of violating social conventions by murdering her longtime lover, a married man who'd promised to leave his wife: the saga is rendered by one of the women attending the trail—itself a breach of the male courtroom bastion, and a sign of the times as the issue of women's rights gains attention. The title story concerns Gold Rush days and a quiet man rescued from South Sea cannibals who works for a Mormon-turned-unscrupulous-businessman, and who does his bidding without complaint—until it seems an innocent man has been hung by vigilantes ruled by his boss. Vivid, poignantly reconstructed moments in history—all rendered with wit and a keen eye for the quirks of human nature.
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