Wednesday, August 13, 2014

What I Read in July Part II

What I Read in July Part II . . .

Jubilee TrailJubilee Trail by Gwen Bristow -- Historical Fiction/Romance

Miss Garnet Cameron has just finished at her fashionable young ladies' academy and now she's expected to marry someone in her New York Society social circle, for it's 1844 and that is all young ladies like garnet are expected to do. Yet, Garnet wants so much more. She wonders at the gaudily decorated theater she sees well-dressed people go into; she wonders what's out there besides New York and longs for adventure. When a prominent local merchant is murdered, it sets off a chain of events that will change Garnet's life forever. First she meets the charming Oliver Hale from California, a place that she's never even heard of and isn't on a map! Oliver is a trader on the trail between Santa Fe and Los Angeles (then a backwater village); he's full of incredible stories and is willing to talk to Garnet like a human being instead of a china doll. When he proposes, she is all too eager to accept. Her parents have reservations, but they want her to be happy and wish her well. Then Garnet begins on a life of adventure that has more in store for her than she ever dreamed. Next, she meets "Florinda Grove," an actress at a burlesque theater in New York. She discovers that Florinda is not at all what she expected of an actress and the two women are fundamentally similar at the core. Then, Garnet arrives in Santa Fe and meets her traveling companions: John Ives, her husband's mysterious business partner, Texas, a drunkard but as true blue as they come and a darn good doctor; Silky, the ladies' man with the twirly mustache and Penrose, a selfish trader. Garnet lives an entire lifetime of experiences before she even gets to California, where she plans to spend a pleasant winter before returning home. What more could be in store for her?

Note: I read this book with a scholarly eye, having taken a seminar on History the West. Though we skimmed the Gold Rush and covered largely the post-Civil War era, I know a little bit about the history of New Mexico.

The dust jacket flap pretty much gives away the entire plot though I think even without it I could have predicted what would happen. The plot is full of standard elements and foreshadowing so I wasn't completely surprised by most of what happened. It needs an epilogue to tell what happens after the book ends at the start of the Gold Rush. Where this book excels is in the details. The descriptions are absolutely incredible. The reader feels like they are on the trail and in California (not the paradise it is considered today) with Garnet. Every hot, dusty, dirty, gritty detail is here in this book. The author leaves you to imagine the sounds and smells but they're described in full detail. She must have done an incredible amount of research.

However, that is also where she failed because she seems to have read only American sources. The story is full of racial and ethnic stereotypes and prejudices that were common in the 1840s. I found them distasteful and the story biased towards "Good ol' Yankee ingenuity." That didn't take away from my enjoyment of the plot, I just wish I knew more about that time and place. (Must remember to ask my History of the West professor if he knows this book). I think the so-called Diggers are supposed to be Paiute and the Utahs are Utes. The Comanche were busy raiding, trading and capturing slaves in New Mexico/Texas at that time. They were not "harmless" and easily pacified as Oliver makes it sound. Also, there's a gaping plot hole...

Another place where the story excels is well-drawn characters. The author manages to make stock characters into flesh and blood people you can care about and feel something for. I loved Garnet right from her introduction. I empathized with her boredom and longing for adventure. I felt that way at her age too. She could have been a Mary Sue character but she has an adventurous spirit, grit and determination that make her more than just a very good woman. I liked Oliver a lot in the beginning. He and Garnet were so cute and perfect for each other. I also loved Florinda, though she doesn't believe in love. Florinda is an amazing, strong woman. All she has been through has made her who she is and yet she's still developing at the end of the book. I did not like John very much. He's a good man but brooding isn't my type. He is so annoyingly stubborn, especially about a certain emotion he claims is "moonshine."  
The supporting characters Texas and The Brute are also wonderful, especially Texas. I wasn't expecting his story to go in that direction but I just loved him for everything he did for Garnet. The Brute is an unusual character. I've never read about anyone like him before.

I would recommend this book to those who love historical fiction but be sure to read it with a critical eye, understanding the prejudices and biases that color the story.

I did a little bit of research and came up with some information on the Old Spanish Trail, which I think is Oliver's Jubilee Trail.

They started on the Santa Fe Trail

Old Spanish National Historic Trail

The Old Spanish Trail Association

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