It’s no spoiler to reveal that the defining event of this lovely, constantly surprising novel is the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. The narrative starts just before disaster strikes, but most of the story unfolds in the chaotic aftermath of the actual quake.
Viewed through the crystal-clear vision of Vera Johnson (aged “fifteen and an earthquake”), San Francisco catastrophically falls and gradually rises again from its ashes. Meanwhile Vera’s world first unravels and then regrows. Vera is the illegitimate daughter of Rose, a rich and powerful San Francisco madam who has farmed her out to a foster family but stays, coldly, in touch. Unloved and unpretty, Vera is also intelligent, honest, and tough. Through Rose’s many crooked cronies and connections in the wildly corrupt world of San Francisco, Vera knows how the system works. When it crashes and burns, she manages to dig out of the rubble, pass only slightly scathed through a series of adventures, and prosper.
As she cruises through the wreckage, this tart-tongued female Huck Finn leads a ragtag gang including several of Rose’s displaced prostitutes, a crafty Chinese cook, a dog, a bird, a giant horse, Vera’s hapless foster sister, and a boy named Bobby.
Serious research underlies Edgarian’s novel. The geography is absolutely accurate, and some minor characters are historic figures, such as “Handsome Gene” Schmitz, the about-to-be-indicted violinist/mayor of the city, Sarah Bernhardt, and Enrico Caruso—all three of whom really happened, preposterously or not, to be in San Francisco on April 18, 1906.
The diction, particularly in dialogue, seems a little anachronistic at first: characters speak 21st-century English. But this becomes more understandable as the life story of truthful Vera reaches its satisfying conclusion. It also becomes clear that Vera itself is a brand-new California classic.