I’ve tried to recap this book like fifty different times, I’ve read it several times! At least three times I’ve read it specifically on airplanes! But I just cannot seem to get my act together to recap it.
Seeds of Hope: The Gold Rush Diary of Susanna Fairchild, California Territory, 1849, Kristiana Gregory, 2001.
This is actually semi-connected to Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie, in that Susanna and Hattie are distant cousins (and her aunt Augusta is mentioned in this book), because Kristiana Gregory wrote them both. That has nothing to do with anything, it’s just an interesting fact.
Why can’t I seem to get myself truly interested in this book? Kristiana Gregory is a great author, I generally very much enjoy her books, her characters are interesting and the stories are engaging, but for whatever reason I just cannot with this book. It almost reminds me of another, similar book? But I can’t put my finger on what—maybe it’s that atrocious Hearts and Dreams book, Heart of Gold, that it reminds me of? Although the resemblance there is very thin. I could just be dreaming it. Tell me in the comments if I’m losing my mind.
This is a pretty sad book, too, because it’s one of those awful books where you learn that Adults Aren’t Infallible. The very first page starts out on the clipper ship outside of Peru, and there’s some vague faffing about loss and how seasick her mother was for most of the trip, and how distraught her father is, blah blah, then we learn a little bit about how sailing is super miserable and everyone in Peru seems to be talking about gold. Susanna and her sister, Clara, befriend a Peruvian woman, Rosita, who’s traveling to California with her brothers, but every time they come near land there’s hundreds and hundreds of men trying desperately to get on board their ship to go to California, too—because Polk has declared that there is gold there.
When they get to San Francisco, the place is deserted, and it’s because everybody with legs to walk on has deserted the place for the gold fields. Everyone! People just walking away from their jobs into the hills, searching for gold. And then, BLAMMO. Susanna’s father, who is a DOCTOR, has decided that he’s going to try to become a miner too! Because of course he is! Because he’s a jerk! He would make better money fixing up the miners who hurt themselves searching for gold, but whatever, he’s useless. People have been convincing him that finding gold is like “picking apples off a tree,” and it seems to me that people would be smarter than that, but I GUESS NOT.
It turns out the reason they need money so badly is SUPER SAD—Susanna’s mother was really seasick for most of the trip, and it turned out it wasn’t just that, it was that she was pregnant, too (because what better time to get pregnant than just before an epically long voyage around the southern tip of South America? None, that’s when). The very DAY she started to feel better she was going for a walk on the deck, a freak wave came along, submerged the deck, and swept her away and into the water. And she drowned, of course, and Susanna’s father had ripped off his jacket and tried to leap into the ocean to rescue her, forgetting that all of their money was sewn into his coat. And that was washed away too. Wife and life savings, gone in one wave. So recognizing how their mother wanted them to stay together, Susanna and Clara opt to stay with their father as he becomes a miner.
So off they go, up to the hills, where they actually learn that nearby there is an old friend of the family from Missouri, Jesse Blue, who has been mining himself. They pitch a tent near the river, and Susanna’s father goes off to try his hand at mining. This cannot end well.
So while their father goes off to poorly mine, Clara and Susanna try their best to do laundry in the river and cook over a fire and things of that nature. After two weeks, he’s earned only five dollars’ worth of gold, but because this is California during the Gold Rush, everything is absurdly expensive so they can barely afford any food with that. So instead, he takes a little break and builds them a cabin to live in, since there’s a MURDERER on the loose and he thinks hey, perhaps it wouldn’t be so awesome if I lost my wife AND my teenage daughters in the same year, no? So the cabin goes up, and they finally bump into Mr. Blue, and they think things are going smoothly enough so that Mr. Fairchild bops on upriver for better gold prospects, leaving the girls alone in the cabin.
And a huge tree falls right in front of their cabin and traps them! They have to sort of wiggle their way out, but once they hear there’s been another murder, they’re OK with the tree staying there until their father gets back. With nothing better to do, they explore the area and find Rosita and her family not too far away downriver, which is a nice surprise. They find a stray burro and adopt her as a pet; they start decorating their garden with old coloured glass bottles; they get a letter from their father saying things are going so super-awesome where he is he can’t come home yet. Excellent parenting.
Mr. Blue seems to come down from the camp where the girls’ father is semi-frequently, and brings gold to the assayer’s office for both of them. Not much, though, and Susanna begins to be a bit suspicious about it and asks him to draw a map to the creek. And then, even worse—a thief comes into their cabin while they’re gone and steals their remaining money! The last $56 they have, gone! God, this family has terrible luck.
Some miners bring in a teenage boy who’s blown himself up a bit with black powder, and he has all kind of terrible injuries, and they’re looking for the doctor. Well, good luck with that, he’s fucked off to the gold fields along with everyone else! Nah, not really, Susanna and Clara take the kid in and let him stay in their cabin while they head upriver to look for their father. On the way, they stop for the night in a cave and carve their names into it, because IT HAD GOLD IN IT.
They only grab a little, though, and when they return to it after finding their father, other people have already claimed it, because life is unfair and this family is unlucky. They all return to the cabin, where Sam, the boy with the terribly injured leg, has been slowly growing worse and worse. Their father has to CUT SAM’S LEG OFF, RIGHT IN THEIR CABIN, because it’s developing gangrene, and Clara and Susanna have to help. Ugh, it’s so awful.
But while Sam is recovering, Mr. Fairchild takes the gold that Clara and Susanna took from the cave and has it assessed—it’s SEVEN POUNDS, which means they have almost two thousand dollars, which is a very tidy sum indeed for 1849! But Susanna says it’s far more than he made in a few weeks, and Mr. Fairchild is like “what are you talking about?” because he had found four pounds of gold and sent it with Mr. Blue to the assayer’s—turns out, he was penniless himself and took ALL their money. Except $16 worth. How very generous of him. People are horrible. Later on they hear that he skipped town with almost five grand and amazingly, Susanna’s father’s reaction is “I would rather be a poor man with honest friends than a rich man with none.” Which is a nice sentiment, but…now he’s a poor man AND he has one fewer friend. So he has neither.
After a couple of weeks more, the girls’ father declares that he misses helping people and doesn’t care if they’re poor. Nice. Thank goodness you spent all that time dicking around in icy-cold water and trusting the wrong people, then. The girls aren’t too bothered by this, though, because they are reasonably comfortable in the cabin with their pet burro and pet kitten and pet fish (that they keep in a glass jar on the table, because why not?) and some nearby friends. Their dad starts doctoring again (also, hilariously, “the dance hall lady, but he won’t say what the matter is” which cracks me up) and Sam, the guy who lost a leg, is still living with them while recovering.
Rosita’s baby ends up coming a little early, and as usual in a crisis Susanna’s father is nowhere to be found, so she and Clara end up helping out with the birth. Poor Rosita ends up labouring for eighteen hours before delivering her daughter, and luckily everyone is OK, but Susanna’s dad doesn’t make it until much later. Typical.
But the girls manage to do OK, and later that summer Susanna develops a crush on Sam, because she’s only fifteen and he’s dreamy for a guy with only one leg. For her birthday, he claims a square of river and land for her so she can collect any gold there, and she finds out that Clara told him all about Mr. Blue and the theft of the gold and how the girls were in a hurry to find their father to help him (Sam) out when they lost their claim. Later on, he asks permission to court her, and it’s all sweet and yet overshadowed by the MURDER TRIAL going on—the dance-hall lady killed a guy who robbed her, and then said nothing when a Mexican teenager was hanged for it—so then she was found out and hanged herself. So that’s depressing.
Clara begins going with one of Rosita’s older brothers, Antonio, and their kitten eats their pet fish, and the girls write to their cousins up in Oregon, and things are pretty quiet. I think part of the reason I had such a hard time with this book is that the premise is interesting, but it just drags for so many pages at a time! The difference between this one and Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie is that in the latter, you know that all the characters are moving and traveling, while in this one the girls are living in their cabin and entertaining themselves with their pet donkey. It’s interesting in a sort of quiet, pastoral way, and the way the mountains and hills are described you can almost smell the pines and the river and the clean air, but at the same time, it’s….not thrilling.
Anyway, Mr. Fairchild decides that he wants to winter in Oregon with family, and the girls begin fretting that they’ll have to leave Rosita and her family, but ultimately decide to go to Oregon anyway. They need to leave about the beginning of September to make it up for the winter, and Rosita and her husband will move into their cabin instead. Sam comes with them, and they head up to Oregon together via Sacramento and to San Francisco—they haven’t been in a real city for several months, so that’s a big change. Then onto the ship, a few days north to Oregon, and they arrive in the autumn to their new home.
In the epilogue, they stay with Hattie’s family until they build their own cabin, and Sam and Susanna are married not too long afterwards. But cruelly, Clara never gets to get married at all, and instead starts an orphanage and lives to be 101. What happened to Antonio??? He sounded so nice!!!
Rating: B-. I know! I was surprised by the rating I gave it, too! I wonder if I’ve been too harsh on this book. For a book about the gold rush, it’s surprisingly quiet, but it gives a nice sense of what actually happened during the gold rush—murders, thefts, people turning against one another, people being jerks, ridiculously expensive prices for everything, and no one making nearly as much money as they thought they would have. Which is pretty accurate, all things considered. It just doesn’t seem to skip along as smoothly as some of Kristiana Gregory’s other books, which is probably why I’ve tried to recap it like six times so far and this is the first time I’ve managed to finish it. I don’t know, I wouldn’t have given it this high of a rating if I didn’t think it was marvellously evocative of a very enjoyable summer vacation in the mountains. (I know it wasn’t a vacation for them! But it has that feel—pine trees and streams and cabin living.) It’s almost restful, in a weird way, but still not at the top of any of my lists.