Book Review by Mary Guss
January 29, 2007
The story opens in June of the year 1900, shipside amid the hustle and bustle of the Seattle docks during the Nome gold rush. Watching the loading is the book's protagonist, Esther Crummy, a farm wife from Minnesota, on her way to visit her sister in Ballard. She turns out to be in the right place at the right time to find herself instead offered a job aboard one of the ships bound for Nome, as the horse handler. Esthre agrees to take that job in very short order, making the reader think she's either crazy or full of adventurous spirit. The truth turns out to be something quite different.
The story of the voyage to Nome, through Dutch Harbor and up the Bering Sea is used as a time to introduce the readers to the characters in the story then to Nome as it existed in the middle of the gold rush. Just as everyone is making their initial way in Nome, a hundred pages into the novel, the author frustratingly yanks the reader from back to small-town Minnesota five years earlier. The next 100 or so pages are used to fill the reader in on Esther's history and the reason she has "left her husband" as she previously announced to fellow traveler Nate Deaton of the Cape Nome Company. At that point the reader is not thrilled about turning back from people and places newly met and full of interest, but has no other choice than to go along for the ride.
The watery world of the first 100 pages could hardly be more different from the "grain and prairie weeds" of the valley of the Red River of the North detailed in the next 100. The writing itself seems dustier and drier in this section, more flat and slow-moving. The characters have less generosity of spirit and imagination. It is in this stretch of the novel that we come to know and thoroughly dislike Esther's husband, Leonard Crummy. He is a repeated disappointment to Esther and to her dreams of owning land, raising crops and having a family. Finally, happily, when the readers has had more than enough of this location and this person, the scene changes abruptly; it is 1900 again and Leonard is in Ballard looking for his wife.
The sister tells Leonard "Your wife's gone to Nome up in Alaska. Spend the night here if you like, and then you are on your own... I am not running a hotel." The rest of the book tracks Leonard's efforts to find his wife and details the life Esther has made without him -- all set against the background of life in Alaska during a time of great change and excitement. Peter Brown provides historical detail from the time as an integral and fascinating part of the story. And here the reader definitely gets caught up in the action and sped along with it. As Esther says, "you give yourself to a thing, and then you hang on." By the end of The Fugitive Wife you will be glad that you hung on for the entire ride.
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