The Fugitive Wife
This wide-ranging novel spans territory from Minnesota to the Seward Peninsula. Leaving difficult circumstances in Minnesota, Esther “Essie” Crumney finagles a job as horse wrangler on a boat to Nome, Alaska. Her travel companions include Lena Walton, whose employer is Major Palmer, the general manager of the Cape Nome Company, one of the hundreds that seek riches in Alaska. Nate Deaton is the engineer on whose designs the whole Cape Nome Company depends. Essie’s husband, Leonard, also plays his part in this story of triumph over adversity.
Brown used family diaries and historical data to conjure the bustle of human endeavor among the frozen reaches. Because of the short window of opportunity between thaws, gold-seekers had no time to waste. This frenzy inspired exploration of new technologies and lured big Eastern money-types, in addition to diehard sourdoughs, into the prospective mix. Some became very rich, not always with a pick and shovel, while others failed or died trying.
Moving forward and backward in time from the year 1900, Brown peels back the layers of the story, creating and sustaining tension. He uses the landscape as a metaphor, contrasting the fertile emptiness of Minnesota with the exotic wildness of Alaska, a reflection of Essie’s journey from tradition-bound female to independent woman. There is a bluntness about much of the dialogue that began to bother me midway through the book. For example, the characters habitually drop beginning pronouns from their sentences. In Essie, this could be symbolic of her repression, but what of the others? Were they just too busy to use excess words? The prose sections, however, were eloquent and insightful. I would recommend this book to those who enjoy literary historical novels.