Daughter of Fortune, by Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende is known for creating strong, smart, passionate, and occasionally eccentric female characters. In Daughter of Fortune, this includes Eliza and her adopted mother Rose, plus several bit players that make this story like none other of the California Gold Rush of 1849. And the men are no slouches either.

Baby Eliza shows up on in a soap crate at a wealthy family’s home in Valparaiso, Chili—with or without a mink blanket, depending on who’s telling the story—and Rose, who lives alone with her stodgy brother Jeremy, takes her in and raises her as her daughter. For 15 years Eliza is a model child, dressing like a beautiful and delicate doll and following Rose’s guidance on how to become a proper young lady. Womanhood, though, takes her for a wild ride, and she has a torrid affair with one of her Uncle Jeremy’s lowly employees, the serious and romantic Joaquin. She gets pregnant, but Joaquin has already left to find his fortune in California. Eliza, of course, follows him as a ship’s stowaway and spends the next four years impersonating either a Chilean boy or a Chinese boy searching the High Sierras for her lover.

Rose, a spinster at the age of 25, surreptitiously pens lusty stories that eventually also make their way to California to help miners get through the misery that greets them in the gold fields. As it turns out, Rose has her own secrets, mainly a love affair with one of the proteges of the Marquis de Sade, which gives her plenty of material for her books. Rose secretly wishes Eliza luck with her love affair with Joaquin because she herself was banished from England to Chili to save her reputation, and she’s quietly resentful.

Meanwhile Pauline de Santa Cruz, daughter of a wealthy landowner and wife of an entrepreneur, decides to buy a steamship, fit it with dried ice, and use it to transport fresh fruits and vegetables to the gold fields. She makes a fortune.

We’re never clear about the fate of Joaquin—did he die in California early on, or did he become an outlaw? Jacob Todd, who we first meet in Chili when he pretends to be a missionary, ends up in California, changes his name and calls himself a journalist. He earns his living making up stories about Joaquin, so nobody actually knows what’s what. Even, possibly, Jacob.

Eliza’s friend Tao Chi’en is a Chinese doctor who saves her life aboard the ship and also earns the respect of the California community because of his medical wisdom. He helps Eliza maintain her secrecy and hides his own love for her, which, we’re sure, will eventually be requited.

Rose’s other brother, the dashing sea captain John, adds mystery to the plot. Plus there’s the prostitutes who have learned to stay safe in a dangerous occupation and even more dangerous country and the Singsong girls who Tao Chi’en tries to save, earning a reputation as a reprobate because others think he’s using them in one awful way or another—and are fine with it.

The book is a primer on Chinese and Chilean culture and the horrors of the goldrush. We learn much about human nature while reading this book, in which nobody is entirely who we think they are. Except, possibly, boring Jeremy.

— Pat Prijatel

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