A girl posing as a boy finds a nugget and sets off a gold rush, with mixed results for the mid-19th-century town of Motherlode, Calif.
When Alex arrives, fleeing some unspecified trouble in San Francisco that requires her to disguise her gender, Motherlode is a ramshackle settlement presided over by Emaline, proprietress of the Victoria Inn. From there, she dispenses meals, whiskey and her favors to the rough men who are scratching the hills in hopes of making a strike. But her heart belongs to Jed, a fugitive slave who’s treated with grudging respect in this makeshift society by everyone except John Thomas, a nasty piece of work who also falsely asserts that Alex jumped his claim. Good-natured Limpy and his partner David force John Thomas to back off (though it’s clear he’ll be back to cause more trouble) and join Alex in the backbreaking work of sifting her claim to see if the nugget was part of a vein or just a fluke. David is disturbed by his attraction to someone he thinks is a boy, and Alex’s feelings for him begin to stir up unwelcome memories of her female past and a grimly unforgiving grandmother back in Pennsylvania. Emaline too is a refugee from the stricter ways of the East; she left a dead husband on the trail and changed the bleak name “Destitution Valley” to Motherlode to reflect her belief that she and all the other misfits can make a new future for themselves here. The story unfolds slowly—a little too slowly, with some simmering conflict (newly arrived, respectable women want to run Emaline out of town) but little real action until the bloody climax. Yet by accretion, Volmer paints a moving portrait of outcasts and nonconformists who build their own community.
Salty, softhearted Emaline is the only truly memorable character, but evocative historical background and thoughtful social observation make this a promising debut.