A former soldier with a mysterious past and a dark secret rises to financial prominence in Gore’s (The Gordian Knot, 2000) lengthy novel.
Daniel Durand isn’t your typical wealthy banker. For one, he’s an orphan who, as a young man, enlisted as a Union soldier in the Civil War for lack of a promising future. Second, Daniel bears a hardheaded will and level of honesty his more affluent contemporaries find shocking. He’s the kind of socially disadvantaged guy no one doubts will succeed. At the end of his career in the service, Daniel is wounded, witnesses his best friend Will’s death and abets a runaway slave. These moments haunt Daniel forever, particularly the latter, a violent memory Daniel buries. After returning home to Cleveland, and at friend’s suggestion, Daniel doggedly pursues a career in banking. His persistence pays off, scoring him a clerk gig at one Mr. Haverford’s bank, where Daniel quickly advances. Eventually, he steals Haverford’s bank manager and potential client, John Rockefeller, to start his own successful bank. But when he also attracts Haverford’s stunning daughter, Eleanor, he begins making enemies, most notably sinister Archer Winfield, whose ruthless family seeks to disrupt Daniel’s plan, which includes marrying Eleanor and relocating his family and career to New York, where his secret finally resurfaces. Gore efficiently moves through history, expertly rendering the Civil War’s horrific chaos and the lively Industrial Revolution. The war section is particularly moving, not only for its stark descriptions of weary soldiers bearing corpses through bogs and munching on maggot-infested hardtack, but also for its saber-sharp criticism of war. “We’re fodder, Danny,” Will says. “Do you think Sherman, Grant, or Lincoln care? They never would have made it to where they are if they did. Their appreciation for what we face, for risking our lives, goes no further than their pompous speeches.” On the other hand, despite the novel’s heft, the prose sometimes feels rushed and, therefore, melodramatic, as when Daniel discovers Will facedown in Vicksburg: “He crawled toward the body as fast as he could, pulling his rifle with one hand, scraping his other hand and knees on the dirt. Please don’t be Will. He reached the body and turned him over. Will.” But for a novel this size, Gore keeps his sentences readable and the story moving, so the nearly 800 pages go by quickly.
A historical novel as grand and ambitious as the characters and eras it portrays.