Even though you know that it’s her destiny to make the trip to California, your heart aches knowing that she has to make this journey. It yells out to her, “No! Don’t do it, Eliza. Think of your future!” but you know she must go and there is nothing you can do to stop her. So you prepare yourself for a tear jerker — the story of a Chilean girl who follows her lover to California during the peak of the Gold Rush.
Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende is a historical novel that will leave you drying your tears with a brighter outlook on life. The story begins with Eliza’s childhood as an orphaned girl in Chile, raised by wealthy British family, Miss Rose Sommers and her brother Jeremy, with visits from their sea-faring brother, John. She is taught to be a proper lady, which Miss Rose likes to show off for guests, but is often forgotten and spends half her time being raised by the native Chilean cook, Mama Fresia.
When a beautiful Chilean boy from Jeremy’s job at the British Import and Export Company, Ltd. shows up at the house, Eliza is dumbstruck by young love. The attraction is mutual. Feeling inadequate, the boy knows that he can never be with Eliza unless he has a fortune, so he sets off to California to mine for gold. She is compelled to be with him, even if that means leaving behind her pampered lifestyle in Chile. Inspired by her Uncle John’s great tales of distant lands, Eliza sets off aboard a passenger ship for the four-month long journey to San Francisco. And here the adventure begins.
What I was expecting was more saloon-filled, Old West type of story of life on the frontier, but what I got was a beautiful and tragic narrative of a young woman taking on the rules of the west, first with a companion and then on her own. There are so few women in the 1850s in San Francisco, that Eliza’s corsets and jewelry threaten her mortality. In order to survive, she must convince others that she’s a man looking for his brother, not a young girl looking for her lost lover in the big city.
It’s not just intolerance and safety issues she faces being a woman, but being Chilean, which is as good Mexican to the Americans and Europeans also competing for limited resources and land to mine. The city is divided: Chinatown, the Chilean barrio, and others. In a place where prostitution is prominent and human trafficking is common, Eliza avoids that life by using her talents to get odd jobs until she can track down her missing lover. Is it her intense passion that keeps her going or her determination not to be another well-bred ornament like Miss Rose? There is plenty of scandal and secrets to keep this story moving.
Daughter of Fortune evokes Steinbeck’s many works. Allende describes life in the West: but instead of the Okies, it’s the Forty-niners. The many minorities that raced to the state to find their fortune are discriminated against by the Americans and their European counterparts. Even the Mexicans that rightfully lived in California before it was lost to the United States face threats for living on their own land. This California is before any settlements have been created. No one is farming the rich Central Valley, there is no Cannery Row and there’s certainly no grapes to pluck straight from the vine and eat every day.
It is difficult for any author to write about the people of California without sounding like an echo of Steinbeck. Daughter of Fortune brought similar stories to life: scenes of prostitutes aiding the sick were reminiscent of Cannery Row. The plight of those travelers trying to make it to California to have a better life was similar to the trials in the Grapes of Wrath. The story of Eliza, a woman trying to prosper in a male-dominant culture, conjured up memories of Cathy in East of Eden. In the frontier of the Golden State, migrants are taking advantage of the fantasy that they can start over, make a quick fortune, and be whoever they want to be.
I don’t want to give away too much in this review, but each chapter reveals another layer of the depth of each character, which will all come together at the end. There are little hints throughout the book that all tie together, but don’t strain to look for them, they are all very subtle that when you finally put the pieces together, your brain will have an a-ha! moment of things you should have known all along. The tales of old world recipes and myths bring to mind the movies, Like Water for Chocolate, and Chocolat. Overall, the novel is discovery in the culture of Chile, the on-going melting pot of California, and a discussion of racism going back more than 100 years. It is very much worth the 428 page read.
Cost: $1.00 (from my local library book sale)
Drink of Choice: Chai tea latte with almond milk