This is the first in a projected series of three books the author is titling the California Chronicles. Covering 1829 to 1853 and taking the reader from Georgia to Missouri to Ohio to Panama and finally to the gold rush days in San Francisco, it is ostensibly the story of a mulatto slave, Mary Ellen, educated and freed by her owner’s wife and passing for white. However, it really is the story of San Francisco, its nineteenth century vigilantism, commerce, fires, and induction into statehood.
Alef has clearly done his research, and oftentimes the characters’ development takes a back seat to a litany of historical facts. Tantalizing storylines are introduced and then dropped. A former failed Tammany Hall politician comes to San Francisco to seek political power there, and although successful in his public life, he is cowed, filled with guilt, or filled with hope when a beautiful singer comes back into his life. It remains unclear which emotion he is feeling, and there is no resolution to that storyline. The reader is left to wonder if the author simply forgot it or intends to return to it in book two of the series. Similarly, Mary Ellen, the purported heroine of the story, never fully comes to life. An early chapter is devoted to her learning voodoo arts in New Orleans for a specific purpose, but it was difficult to discern that purpose when all further references consisted of a few perfunctory remarks about using it to keep her employees in line. Historical details are fine and in fact, the strength of the book. His characters, however, tend to be painted in black and white with few shades of gray.