The popular Pulitzer-winning Dillard (An American Childhood, 1987, The Writing Life, 1989, etc.) has come up with a novel at last--a panoramic and engrossing re-creation of 19th-century pioneer life in the Pacific Northwest--complete with gentlemanly gold miners, avuncular railroad speculators, misty-eyed sweethearts, assorted schemers and dreamers, and even a three-card-monte player or two. Ada and Rooney Fishburn were barely into their early 20s when they set off by covered wagon for the untamed western coastland just south of Canada. Youthful ignorance and optimism proved to be their greatest assets, though, as they arrived at Whatcom, a minuscule settlement in Bellingham Bay, and threw themselves into a lifelong battle against the physical hardship, grueling labor, and frequent tragedies of frontier life. With the help of other setters and a tribe of friendly Lummi Indians, the Fishburns managed to survive--long enough to watch with amazement as gold, railroads, and real estate brought undreamed-of fortune and calamity to their isolated shore. By the time the two surviving Fishburn sons were grown, an ever-increasing influx of shopkeepers, politicians, and entrepreneurs arriving from the Midwest, the East Coast, and Europe had quickened the rhythms of the town sufficiently to send all of Whatcom's fortunes reeling. New personalities joined the fray, including John Ireland Sharp, the soul-searching school principal forever marked by the poverty he witnessed in New York City; Minta and June Randall, Baltimore heiresses who bet their hearts and their inheritances on this coastland; Johnny Lee, a Chinese railway worker whose younger brother was deliberately drowned; and brooding, depraved Beal Obenchain, who toyed with his fellow settlers' psyches as a form of recreation. As usual in Dillard's work, sparkling prose and striking insights abound, though a tendency toward overdescription, plus a certain emotional distance from her many characters--who must regularly vacate the stage to let others have a turn--take some of the power out of her punch. Otherwise: a triumph of narrative skill and faithful research--headed for success.