The lives of a reporter, a Japanese diplomat, and an art scholar intertwine in Nelson’s (Dreaming Mill Valley, 2012) historical novel set in the 1930s.
It’s 1936, and an island is emerging in San Francisco Bay—Treasure Island, the site of the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. The city is abuzz as the island transforms from “soupy muck” to a fair featuring such exhibits as a Japanese Pavilion, a carnivalesque Gayway, and the “Court of the Seven Seas.” Lily Nordby is a tenacious young newspaper reporter assigned the Treasure Island beat; Tokido Okamura, a Japanese diplomat, resides on the ship Tatuta Maru and is overseeing the creation of the Japanese Pavilion; and Mayan-art expert Woodrow Packard, who has dwarfism, has recently returned from travels in Chichén Itzá. Their work throws them together again and again, but, as Lily and Tokido’s relationship deepens, Woodrow grows suspicious of the Japanese government’s intentions in America, particularly as their aggression in China continues. Meanwhile, Lily receives news that her long-lost mother is alive somewhere in San Francisco. Nelson pays careful attention to the facts of the exposition and offers nostalgia for the San Francisco of the past as she brings the wonders of the Golden Gate Bridge and the marvel of Treasure Island to life. (Black-and-white photographs from the real-life exposition are included.) Often, however, she includes historical information in dialogue, apparently more for the reader’s benefit than for any organic, narrative purpose. Still, this material is interesting enough that readers likely won’t mind. The characters’ actions and decisions don’t carry much emotional weight, but they do allow readers to happily explore the exposition’s glamour and kitsch, including a movie supposedly featuring “nudists playing volleyball” and “a woman poised to swallow neon glass tubes.”
A love letter to the razzle-dazzle of ’30s San Francisco and the wonders of Treasure Island.