California Gold: a novel

California sun reveals a train, oil derricks, a housing development ringed by orange groves
Mack Chase sees the California sun

In California Gold, John Jakes marries the historical sweep of a James A. Michener novel with the cloying romance of a Danielle Steel novel. The result is a very thick book that’s very easy to forget.

Jakes’ hero, James Macklin Chase, arrives on foot in California in 1886 determined to make his fortune. Mack carries his inspiration with him: T. Fowler Haines’s “Emigrant’s Guide to California and Its Gold Fields.”

Mack has just arrived when he learns a lesson not in Haines’s book: “When you own the water, you can drink all you want.”

Mack doesn’t own water. He is penniless, uneducated, and hopelessly naive. But he’s also handsome, kind, brave, hardworking, intelligent, and willing to take risks.

Jakes moves Mack up and down California from 1886 to 1921.

Mack cleans up well and looks great in black tie.

He fights the corrupt Southern Pacific monopoly, supports the right of labor to organize, pays his workers a fair wage, and protests racism.

He survives the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, meets William Randolph Hearst, Leland Stanford, John Muir, Jack London, “Gentleman” Jim Corbett, Teddy Roosevelt.

Bad guys hate him.

Good guys respect him.

Women fall at his feet.

And Mack lives happily ever after.

California Gold: a novel
By John Jakes
Random House. ©1989. 658 p.

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Immortal Wife is a lifeless figure

Jessie, the favorite daughter of Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton, grows up working with her father, breathing politics, and believing it is America’s manifest destiny to rule from Atlantic to Pacific.


Immortal Wife: The Biographical Novel

of Jessie Benton Fremont by Irving Stone

Doubleday, 1944. 450 pages. 1945 bestseller # 10. My Grade: B-.


Jessie Benton Fremont wears hair in pompadour style with ringlets, has cameo on ribbon around her neck
Jessie Benton Fremont

At 16, Jessie falls in love with John Fremont, a military topographer ambitious to make a name for himself that would override the tinge of his illegitimate origins.

Jesse is determined to make her marriage stronger than either of them.

John leads four expeditions to map the unexplored frontier so settlers could move west to keep the Spanish and British from annexing the Pacific Coast. He wins the respect of people on the frontier – and the displeasure of politicians in Washington.

John’s career is a series of great exploits and monumental failures.

He makes and loses a fortune in gold mining.

He is defeated in the 1860 presidential race, even though he wins more votes than the winner.

Lincoln strips Fremont of his command in the early days of the Civil War.

After John dies, Jessie reflects that she never understood him.

Readers will feel that they don’t understand Jessie either.

Irving Stone makes the period history interesting, but he fails to make his heroine come alive.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Photo credit: public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Engineers are heroes of The Winning of Barbara Worth

The Winning of Barbara Worth is a romance in which the romance is the  least interesting element.

An orphaned child found by an engineering team is adopted by financier Jefferson Worth when search fails to find any indication of her family. He adores Barbara; she respects him.

Barbara’s dream is to see Imperial Valley turned from desert into farmland, a dream she shares with the men of the civil engineering outfit. When a handsome, rich Eastern engineer comes to work toward that goal, Barbara falls for him. There are the usual complications of the romance genre.

In Harold Bell Wright’s narrative, California’s Imperial Valley becomes a vivid character, acting out one of several subplots, each more exciting than the main story.

The most exciting subplot is battle of the engineers to reclaim the land by channeling water from the Colorado River into the ancient seabed.

As they push on with the work, another a battle looms over the meaning of good business. Easterners want to develop the valley to benefit Eastern stockholders. Jefferson Worth wants to develop it to benefit westerners like himself.

Wright orchestrates all the plots toward a climax that thunders like the 1812 overture.

The main plot has a Zane Grey feel, but the novel has a much more intricate plot than a typical Zane Grey novel. Moreover, where Grey waxes philosophic about nature, Wright is more pragmatic: His  heroes are civil engineers and entrepreneurs, not cowboys.

Anyone interested in geology, business, or American history will find this well-crafted novel an entertaining way to satisfy their curiosity.

The Winning of Barbara Worth
By Harold B Wright
1911 bestseller #6
Project Gutenberg E-Book #6997
My grade B+
©2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Jubilee Trail Celebrates Women’s Strength

Garnet Cameron, newly graduated from a select New York finishing school in 1844, promptly falls head over heals for a Harvard drop-out turned prairie trader. Oliver Hale appeals to a sense of adventure Garnet never knew she had.

They marry and set off  for California, planning to return to New York the following year.

In New Orleans, Garnet engineers the escape of  a dance hall singer accused of murder who  turns up again on the wagon train west over the Jubilee Trail. Garnet and Florinda become best friends.

Once in California, Garnet has to deal with Oliver’s controlling elder brother who had planned a  politically expedient marriage for Oliver. Garnet’s hero-husband turns wimp in his brother’s shadow.

When Oliver is killed, Garnet moves in with Florinda, both working as barmaids in Los Angeles. They live through earthquakes, the US annexation of California,  Charles Hale’s attempt to abduct his late brother’s infant son, and the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill.

Garnet looks for abiding love that Florinda denies exists, yet they remain fiercely loyal to each other. Both  face whatever life dishes out, tidy up, and get ready for the next challenge. Through this unlikely pair, novelist Gwen Bristow makes Jubilee Trail a  celebration of women.

The Jubilee Trail
Gwen Bristow
Thomas T. Crowell, 1950
564 pages
1950 bestseller # 8
My grade B-
© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Grapes of Wrath Lays Sentiment on Thick

The Grapes of Wrath is a novel told from a soapbox.

Unable to keep up payments on their miserable Oklahoma farm, the Joads are forced to leave the land. Lured by handbills promising jobs, they pack 12 family members, an ex-preacher and a dog into a Hudson and set out for California.

Only eight of the Joad clan make it.

California turns out not to be the promised land. As thousands compete for harvesting jobs, wages drop. Men see their children starving. The Joads are in a bad way, but not so poor that they won’t share what little they have.

Substitute Hispanics for Oakies and much of The Grapes of Wrath will sound contemporary. The story remains gripping today because the search for a better life is timeless.

John Steinbeck alternates a chapter about the Joads with a chapter of his own take on history. He does it seamlessly, but sentimentally. The final scene of Rosasharn giving her milk to the starving man is Hollywood at its worst.

But by making the Joads the poster family for the working poor, Steinbeck trivializes the very conditions he’s trying to condemn. The working poor—and we poor readers—deserve more respect.

The Grapes of Wrath
By John Steinbeck
Viking, 1939
619  pages
1939 #1, 1940 #8
My grade: A-

© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni