Pearce (The Promise of Fate, 2015) offers an offbeat, romantic Western adventure that starts in 1849.
Mariah Hardwick was raised in St. Joseph, Missouri, where her father owns a dry goods store. Con man Earl Penngrove comes to town, sets his sights on Mariah, and courts her, promising her a life of excitement exploring the territory past the Great Plains to what Mariah and her mom call “The Beyond.” The mother and daughter share a passion for the journals of explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, which they read aloud to each other during quiet evenings. It breeds a restlessness in Mariah, which leads her to marry Earl. Together, they join a wagon train heading west. But then Earl runs off and is killed on the journey, and Mariah, unwilling to turn back, pools her resources with Hetty Samuels, a recent widow who’s also determined to reach the West Coast. They head to Remington River in Northern California, where Mariah meets an elderly, Chinese shopkeeper, Zhao (aka the “Old Mandarin”), who, in turn, introduces her to a mysterious Mexican man named Pajaro Mendonca, who has a reputation as an outlaw. Her involvement with the two men will put her in grave danger—and provide her with the thrill of her life. The bulk of the novel consists of Mariah’s travel journal, and she also drops in sometimes-quirky passages from Lewis and Clark’s real-life journal. Readers may find themselves skimming these latter excerpts, however, in order to get back to the dramatic action. Pearce’s descriptions of the political machinations surrounding white American land grabs from the “Californios”—people of Mexican heritage who were born in California before it became part of the United States—have a poignant currency. The author’s carefully honed prose captures the cadence and atmosphere of the period, while also offering two well-drawn characters in Mariah and Pajaro. The concluding third of the narrative, set in 2015 and involving modern characters looking into Mariah and Pajaro’s past, is engaging but will leave readers with lingering questions.
A novel with a strong female lead and plenty to satisfy history buffs.