A colorful world of actors and outlaws comes to life in a debut historical novel from Rivers.
Sixteen-year-old Emma Lightfoot lives in 1856 Placerville, California, one of many towns spawned by the gold rush. Her mother and siblings are dead, but she adores her father and closest companion, C.E. “Emmett” Lightfoot. They write and print the local newspaper, the Placerville Rattler, and at the book’s opening, they both look forward to attending and reviewing the touring Star Troupe’s play featuring Edwin “Ted” Booth, son of renowned actor Junius. But tragedy strikes when Emmett gets a splinter that becomes infected. Within a matter of days, Emma is the sole living Lightfoot. Saddled with her father’s secret debts, Emma tries to turn a one-day gig as the theater company’s washerwoman into a seasonlong engagement, and the troupe’s iron-willed but kind co-manager, Hattie Burnham, brings her on after a strange fire destroys much of Placerville. Emma’s new theatrical “family” includes brooding and handsome Booth; Hattie and her loutish husband, Ben; charming and privileged Harry; coquettish teen actress Sophie; 7-year-old “Fairy Star” Louise; and other eccentrics. The troupe tours the camps and towns of the Sierra Nevada foothills, experiencing great triumphs—largely thanks to Booth’s creative brilliance—and enormous setbacks. Most troublingly of all, a string of destructive fires points to a possible “firebug” in the troupe’s ranks. The novel’s large, colorful supporting cast demands readers’ engagement. Each character is distinct and troubled in his or her own way, such as Emma’s resilient best friend Evangeline’ turning to prostitution after her parents’ death; Hattie’s battling about finances with her gambling husband; or Booth’s struggling with the shadow of his famous father. Secondary characters, in fact, sometimes outshine Emma, who more than once quietly eavesdrops on explosive conflicts in the personal lives of people around her. The story lacks a proper climax, but several scenes and plotlines stand out for their tension and intrigue—a section describing a rescue attempt during a massive, town-consuming fire is knuckle-whitening.
Struggles with structural issues but still shines thanks to its compelling (albeit enormous) cast and vividly constructed world.