A historical novel follows the intersecting lives of three troubled travelers hunting redemption in the Alaska Gold Rush.
In 1897, the prospect of quickly acquired wealth drew both adventurous and desperate sorts to Alaska in search of gold. But others were driven by the desire to escape their former lives and reinvent themselves anew. Kaplan (Over the Edge, 2006) chronicles three such self-exiles whose lives improbably but serendipitously intersect. Maggie Saunders is a prostitute working at a brothel in St. Louis, carefully stashing away money to eventually go out on her own. But a physically imposing customer brutalizes her, leaving her for dead. Maggie helps herself to an involuntary gratuity from his purse of gold, and when he finds out, he attacks her savagely. She defends herself with a stiletto knife, inadvertently killing him. She disguises herself as a young man and furtively hops a train out of town. Meanwhile, Jared Monroe plans to dash his father’s designs for him to earn a doctorate of divinity from Yale and rejoin the family farming business. But his father and brothers all rebuff his return dismissively—one of the brothers beats him to the precipice of death. Jared, too, hops a westward train to start fresh with his loving dog, Brutus. And Alex Stromberg is the son of a successful San Francisco merchant, Mordecai, who constantly squashes the young man’s entrepreneurial dreams. Alex kills a man in a bar fight and is forced to flee San Francisco in order to elude a plot to exact revenge upon him. All three end up in Skagway, Alaska, their lives financially and emotionally intertwined.
Kaplan cleverly collapses the three parallel stories into one coherent narrative, at first by sheer happenstance and then by shared existential purpose. His prose is simple and largely unadorned by literary embellishment, but that straightforwardness is the chief source of its resonance. For example, an old man succinctly captures Jared’s despair at the world’s nihilistic inhumanity: “Ain’t no right or wrong...You get away with what you can get away with. That’s the law of the Yukon.” The drama is briskly paced, with no deficit of spectacular violence and suspense. But the author’s true gift is for vividly revealing the way sparks of goodness strain to light an otherwise morally dark landscape. The combination of avarice and desolation is harrowingly depicted. Furthermore, the author’s historical research is impeccable. His meticulous descriptions of otherwise minor details—the geography, the supplies needed for a gold expedition, the currency of exchange—color the work with an aura of authenticity. The United States more than a century ago is nearly unrecognizable to contemporary eyes, still so unexplored and ungoverned by stable laws. Kaplan expertly portrays this strange cosmos, so foreign and yet so unmistakably American. The torrid action alone turns this into a worthwhile read, but the historical accuracy makes the book worthy of an unabashed recommendation.
A gripping and historically rigorous account of a harsh America.