by Ashley E. Sweeney
She Writes Press
So let's imagine it's the late nineteenth century, you're living in a wild Pacific Northwest landscape, kind of clinging onto a small settlement on a small island that's been barely tamed by humans. You are married to the town minister and you have a young son. A major event happens that leaves you standing almost alone on this island with your life stretching ahead of you beyond the water, beyond the mountains, and beyond the reaches of your imagination. What do you do next?
This is the question that Eliza Waite asks and answers for herself throughout this beautiful novel.
The cover image of the novel is perhaps a bit deceiving, because it depicts a fairly refined lady with a lovely shawl and a well-contained updo. Maybe there's some of that in Eliza's future. However, for most of this book, Eliza is a gritty young heroine, very real while remaining very female and very strong. She spends a lot of time drudging through the muck in a man's coat and boots for survival, not standing by the sea helplessly while her shawl waves in the wind. But whatever sells books, I guess.
The first half of the novel is a meditation on Eliza's days in the San Juan Islands: the landscape, her occasional interactions with neighbors, intermittent punches of emotion and memory. For a long time, Eliza can't (or won't) leave the island where she's been staying even after life there fell apart. It's hard to describe the nature of that place; it's wild and primal while still seeming sometimes like it's singing you to sleep. The narration of this part of book captures the landscape of the region better than I've seen done in a really long time. Honestly, I didn't really want it to end, but I guess there wouldn't have been much of a plot if she had just stayed on the island and became an old woman of the hills or something.
So Eliza's plot moves forward. She ultimately decides to release herself from her island vigil and go north to Alaska with the gold rush seekers. She's got a gift for baking and decides to open a bakery in the haphazard town that's springing to life to serve the miners who are passing through on their way to the Yukon. This part of the plot is livelier and more like a traditional Western with a Pacific Northwest flair. Of course there's also a madam with a heart of gold, or at least a mind for gold, and all the other characters you'd imagine in such a book.
Some of the meditative nature of Sweeney's writing still peeks through from time to time, though, and the character of Eliza begins to evolve. She's not long alarmed by the brothel keeper; as businesswomen, they see something in each other, become fast friends and eventual confidantes. She learns the ways of the town and and figures out how to survive catering to a mostly "rough male" clientele. She learns how to manage the tricky waters of male companionship, or lack thereof, in a small town with so many entanglements and obligations.
One thing that I found interesting about Eliza as a character was that her narrative is not fully driven by her relationships. She does have romantic relationships throughout the novel, and they are important to her and to the plot. But just as important are her business decisions, her skills as a baker, her knowledge of the island and later of the town in Alaska where she ends up, and her platonic friendships with women. We're very used to seeing female characters in historical novels whose entire story arc revolves around a wedding ring and a happy ending or the roles of being a wife and mother. Romantic and familial relationships are important, but they don't wholly make a woman. I really think the characterization of Eliza elevates this above many Western historical novels.
Alas, I can't write too much more without giving away a lot of spoilers. I definitely recommend Eliza Waite to anyone who's interested in historical fiction from this time or era, and anyone who likes to read interesting female characters.