The Odyssey of Effie Frost

Written by K. S. Hollenbeck
Review by Fiona Alison

This coming-of-age tale tells of 18-and 16-year-old sisters, Effie and Phoebe Frost, and their cousin Beatrice, who embark on an arduous journey from Boston to California, following Beatrice’s Argonaut husband, who left to make his fortune. But good news and safety do not await them in San Francisco. Aaron has died of typhoid fever, and what little gold he found is invested in a Sierra Nevada claim, with five other men. Effie demands they take up Aaron’s share and accompany the group as cook, laundress and housekeeper.

This is the mid-1800s, but even amidst the early gold rush, the rot has set in, and hordes of drunken men, addled by gold-fever and the prospect of wealth, eagerly offer marriage proposals. Effie’s self-determination is what unites both family and storyline: a girl, eager to prove her worth, unwilling to surrender her autonomy in a male-dominated world. Whilst Beatrice and Phoebe engage in more womanly pursuits, Effie works the claim alongside the men, the physical strain increasing her strength of body, spirit and purpose. Beatrice and Phoebe’s ill-considered choices don’t affect her determined resolve to take them all home. But as the novel progresses, the idea of home becomes increasingly elusive.

Hollenbeck’s evocative writing makes this a stand-out read. The girls’ individuality, forged anew by the unfamiliar rules they live by, their relationship to each other, and their choices are what makes the novel so compelling. Effie’s character is particularly strong, but the author allows all three girls to grow and mature. The male characters are written with equal thoughtfulness and are not the desperate, delusional people Effie originally supposes. Aptly titled an “odyssey,” this quite short but truly epic tale is packed with detail and richly drawn characters. You don’t have to be a Western fan to appreciate this novel.