This novel, covering the years 1876 to 1905, starts out in Liberty County, Missouri. Young Nathaniel Larabee attempts to rob a bank in revenge for the bank’s foreclosure of his family’s farm, which had resulted in his father’s death. He takes a wrong turn while trying to escape and ends up in Alachua County in northern Florida at a boarding house run by the widowed Emma Newhouse and her three daughters. Nathaniel is fascinated by this rapidly growing place, and believing himself a wanted man in Missouri, decides to stay. His life becomes intertwined with the lives of the Newhouses, especially the middle daughter, Anna.
The novel also tells the story of the dishonest and devious John Howard, whom Nathaniel meets when he first comes to Florida. After Howard involves Nathaniel in some questionable dealings, Nathaniel doesn’t trust him, and they become bitter rivals. Both men’s fortunes rise and fall repeatedly in the unpredictable developing economy of the county.
Gilliland, who was raised in Gainesville, Florida, has clearly done extensive research for this book. He expertly weaves historical events into the story of the Nathaniel’s life, such as the corrupt elections of 1876, the yellow fever epidemic of 1888, the catastrophic freezes of 1895 and 1899, the temperance movement and the founding of the University of Florida. The story is populated with historical figures, including the outlaws Harmon Murray and Michael Kierens and the politicians Major Leonard G. Dennis and Josiah T. Walls. This is what I think of when I think of historical fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and hope that Mr. Gilliland will write more historical novels.