Calico Palace

Written by Gwen Bristow
Review by Kathryn Kimball Johnson

Two women meet in a village of 900 people in 1848 California. Kendra reluctantly accompanies her stepfather, who is an army officer assigned to what is little more than a mining camp. Marny arrives to run a gambling house. Together they participate in and witness the birth of the grand city of San Francisco. We get a taste of a time of amazing discovery when couriers bearing samples from the mining camp called Shiny Gulch make their way from the West Coast through Mexico and thence to Washington, D.C. They deliver to government assayers what is at first described disdainfully as “fish-scales,” but when tested by the Mint is found to be 22-carat gold. Thus begins what will soon be known as the great California gold rush.

This 40th anniversary reprint of one of Bristow’s half dozen popular historical novels stands the test of time and delivers a vivid, finely researched view of an underappreciated period of American history. Bristow’s talent is not inconsequential, and I was moved by her sensitive portrayal of how two very different women stake their claims on a city in progress, discovering love and heartbreak in this gritty new society. This was a satisfying and educational read. I will seek out others of Bristow’s richly peopled novels now that I’ve found her (This Side of Glory, Tomorrow is Forever, to name two). It’s heartbreaking to realize there will no more, as Bristow passed away in 1980. Here’s to the memory of a sterling writer!