Like a River Glorious by Rae Carson (2016) is the second in the Gold Seer series, which began with Walk On Earth a Stranger. The first book sees the heroine and her childhood friend travel from Georgia along the Oregon Trail to California gold country in 1849, and although it was quite good and historically very accurate and detailed about the Trail and the challenges faced along the way, it ended shortly after the group arrived in California, making it not the best candidate for my challenge.
I am reading my way across the USA – and in that sense this book fit the bill! – but my intention was to read 3-5 books from each state, focusing on those where the setting is an integral part of the story and which give the reader a real sense of the people, history, and geography of each individual state. In that sense, the first book in this series wasn’t the greatest, since it’s a traveling book. However, this sequel, Like a River Glorious, is a definite winner!
Whereas in Walk On Earth a Stranger I felt Carson’s landscape descriptions were a bit lacking, in Like a River Glorious she does a much better job.
Sunrise comes late to California. Even when golden light washes the sky, and the snow-tipped peaks of the Sierra Nevada glow pink as winter roses, we remain in shadow for a spell, dwarfed by the slope of the land. Inevitably, a spark sears a crease in the mountains. Within moments, it becomes a flood of light, too bright to look on. The shadows are browbeaten away, and our camp is swathed in color—tall green pines and waving yellow grass along the blue rapids of the twisting American River.
The little group that traveled from Missouri to California has settled along the American River between Sutter’s Mill and Sacramento.
There’s historically accurate information about California’s bid for statehood and some of its early prominent citizens and politicians (Cali’s first governor, Peter H. Burnett), rubbing shoulders with Carson’s fictional characters. (Someone says of James Henry Hardwick, “He’s contending for California’s first governorship, though I expect he won’t get it.”) Carson clarifies in her Author’s Note that she took some liberties with setting certain scenes in Sacramento, which did not become the official capital until 1854 and some of the timeline details such as when the state of California began paying bounties for Indian scalps.
Carson’s description of Sacramento’s beginnings was interesting too, including this observation:
The river is muddy brown with autumn flooding, filled with detritus and boats. Most are sailboats of various sizes, but a few are large paddle steamers, and for the life of me, I can’t figure how they can all maneuver without crashing into one another. “Town’s built too close to the river,” Jefferson observes. “Yep,” Tom agrees. “If we’d built Glory this near the creek, it’d flood come spring for sure.” “It’s bigger than I expected,” I say. Though regular two-story buildings make up the heart of town, tents and shanties extend east almost as far as the eye can see. “They say San Francisco is even bigger,” Henry says. “Four or five times bigger.” We all turn to stare at him. “Cross my heart!” he says.
There are many bits and pieces of history related to Chinese immigrants and the gold rush, as well as California Native Americans, both of whom are shown by Carson as being basically forced into slave labor in the mines.
I’ve read many of Bryce Courtenay’s books set in Australia, including Fortune Cookie which covers the Australian gold rush (in the 1850s just as the gold was drying up in California) and discrimination against Chinese immigrants there. Courtenay’s book indicated that many times Chinese immigrants would buy up claims from impatient white miners who thought they were pulling one over on the Chinese because they’d done some panning and some surface mining and “gotten all the gold out.” Then when the Chinese did the time-consuming, back-breaking labor of real mining and managed to pull a lot more gold out, the whites would get resentful and say they’d been tricked. (Courtenay also goes into more detail about opium and its related problems.) From the small amount of research I did, this appears to be similar to what happened in California as well. Although several of the sites I looked at indicated that some Chinese immigrants worked in the mines for whites, I had some trouble locating information about the coolie gangs Carson describes, with a headman controlling a chain gang of workers.
…They’re slaves?” “Not the headman,” Jasper says. “But he owns work contracts on the others. He’s looking for a big mining operation or a rancher to hire the whole crew. He’ll collect the wages for all of them, and probably send most of it back to China. We saw a dozen groups like this at Mormon Island. There are hundreds of Chinese here already, and more coming.”
The plight of the Native Americans during the California Gold Rush is, unfortunately, historically accurate and easy to verify. This site on the California Gold Rush shows Carson’s description of the atrocities toward the California Indians to be accurate.
Carson also mentions the idea that the California Native peoples have a common name and a secret name, which featured in Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. However, according to the background information in the expanded version that I read, this idea was O’Dell’s invention–there is no existing ethnographic information to prove or disprove the concept. We’ll talk a little more about primary and secondary sources for historical research when I do the full review on Island of the Blue Dolphins.
“I don’t think Muskrat is his real name.” “It isn’t?” “They don’t reveal their true names to Christians.
The historical info about Estanislao that Carson gives seems accurate as well.
“Like one of the feast days at the mission. Like Estanislao used to make.” “Who was Estanislao?” I ask. “A great leader of the Yokuts tribe, and an alcalde at Mission San José. When Spanish rule became cruel, he led an army and attacked the missions. The Yokuts followed him, the Chumash, others, including my own father. Because Estanislao had been an alcalde, he knew exactly when the missions would be distracted and easy to attack.”
There’s definitely some serious historical issues discussed, but there are light-hearted moments too. Like the eating establishment that springs up unintentionally, run by the Widow Joyner who can’t cook but who (at least in the beginning) smiles and makes nice, not wanting to alienate any of the rough regulars.
Widow Joyner has finally had enough of smiling and being nice,” he says. Just then, Becky wags her finger at the nose of a particularly gnarled-looking fellow, and I can’t hear what she’s saying, but it’s clear she’s giving him a piece of her mind. The gnarled fellow just grins in response. “Indeed,” Tom says. “It seems she is embracing her true nature.” He gestures toward a sign hanging from the awning. I stop short. The sign’s large black letters read THE WORST TAVERN IN CALIFORNIA. And below it, in smaller letters: BAD FOOD, BAD SERVICE.
There are a few birds in the book–“a huge blue heron stands sentry like a statue, eye on the surface, waiting for his next meal to wriggle by,” and “A condor soars high above. It’s a giant of a bird, bigger even than an eagle, with magnificent black-and-white wings.” And there is some other wildlife as well. The group settles near a beaver pond, though they soon drive the beavers away as they clear more and more land. And “the tree frogs chorus in the dark—I’ve never heard anything so small make such a large noise, not even crickets in the summer back in Georgia.”
Overall, this part of the Gold Seer trilogy was a very nice addition to my challenge reading for California. There’s a lot of well-researched historical detail–about the Gold Rush and many of the various groups involved–and Carson includes some wonderful landscape descriptions this time that really make the setting jump off the page. I’m torn about reading the third installment. Part of me wants to know what happens next to the little group, but part of me is getting restless and wants to move on to the next state on our journey–I’ve spent much more time in California than in the other states I’ve covered. Besides which, this segment ends at a very natural stopping point–there’s no cliff hanger to entice me to finish the series. We’ll see!