Intrepid early Victorians trek the American desert to photograph a total eclipse.
Historical novelist Byrd sets the presidential series (Jackson, 1997; Grant, 2000) aside to apply his formidable research skills to an inventive tale, set in 1840, of scientists and capitalists in search of wealth and knowledge in the godforsaken outback of beyond. American-born, French-reared Selena Cott is the pure scientist in an odd party that includes a weasely Harvard mathematician, a greedy insurance magnate, a vegetarian frontiersman, and a charming artist, all of them assembled to cross the continent from Washington to New Mexico in search of, among other things, the eclipsed sun. Selena is a math whiz, a protégé of astronomer Mary Somerville, and a beauty whose sea captain father taught her to tackle anything and fear nothing. Skilled in the art of daguerrotypography, Selena plans to take the first pictures of the rare celestial event, best seen in unfriendly and unmapped territory on the far side of the Texas Republic. In her tool trunk ticks the very latest and best chronometer, absolutely necessary to hit the longitudinal mark in the featureless desert. She is also armed with the portable model of inventor Charles Babbage’s fabulous proto-computer. It is the computer rather than the celestial event that motivates financially strapped insurance man William Henshaw Pryce. Pryce’s grasp of the possibilities of the computer has sent him in search of capital for its development. Successful use of the machine to locate the solar event would attract millions. That is, at any rate, his public story. Frontier guide and early health-nut Webb Pattie joins the scientific expedition in Missouri and steers their train of spanking new Conestoga wagons west on the Santa Fe Trail. There are the expected adventures, deprivations, Indian encounters and conflicts, but there is also unexpected skullduggery having to do with Charles Babbage’s immensely wealthy and reclusive Uncle Richard, who’s in sequestered residence with the Kiowa tribe strangely near the astronometrical destination.
Terrific adventures. Splendid details.