Friday, January 21, 2011
...good historical fiction but characters act annoyingly out of character in final chapters
I had difficulty deciding how I felt about this novel. It tells the story of Hannah Butler who comes to America as a ladies maid in the last decade of the nineteenth century. On a train ride west, almost out of boredom, she elopes with Hans Nelson. Nelson is an attractive man who is traveling west to Alaska to mine for gold. The couple travel from Seattle to Skagway, encounter conditions for which they are completely unprepared – no shelter available causing them to sleep outdoors. They retreat to Juneau to work and wait out the winter and then return north in search of gold. Through the winter they meet Dutch, a dreamer with information on a gold field in the north, Harky a simple minded soul who will provide the muscle for their team and Michael, an Irishman who owns the ship which will take them north.
The author details their trip north to Heartbroke Bay. The story has an authentic Alaskan feel to it. One can only image how brave those who settled this land were. The trip north is a sea voyage fraught with peril. They arrive and set up camp to begin their search for gold. A Tlingit Indian, Negook visits and warns them that settling in this part of the region is not safe – earthquakes, tsunamis, etc. The group ignores his advice (always happens that way doesn’t it!). There is a growing attraction between Hannah and Michael which adds more tension to an already tense group. Nothing goes right for the group, very little gold is recovered and catastrophically their ship is lost when an iceberg destroys it.
Unbeknownst to her husband Hans, Hannah succumbs to Michael’s advances and they become lovers. Helped by Negook they do locate a gold vein and harvest significant amounts of gold. Disastrously, the group decides to delay their departure to mine more gold and pass up their last chance to leave the bay prior to winter’s arrival. The action really picks up here. Food is limited, Hans becomes injured, the weather is worsening and Hans suspects Hannah’s infidelity. One abortive attempt to walk out of the valley fails and costs the group half of the mined gold. After a hunting expedition Michael returns and unprovoked kills Harky and Dutch and attempts to kill Hans and Hannah. This is where I really had a problem with this story, Michael’s behavior is so unexpected and entirely out of character. I believe that the author builds a case for Hannah’s guilt but there is nothing in Michael’s personality that would support an act like this. This story is based on actual events that occurred in Alaska in 1899. It seems to me that the author lost this story when she gave up her narrative and molded this novel to match the actual events that took place. I was enjoying this book until the last few chapters when the characters began to act so annoyingly out of character, so it is difficult to highly recommend it but the Alaskan gold story is a good one and well told through most of this book.
I read a copy of this book bought at Amazon