By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton
Eliza Sommers is being raised by Rose and Jeremy Sommers in Valparaiso, Chile. She was found at their doorstep, an apparently abandoned baby. She was obviously of English heritage, as were the Sommers.
The Sommers were at the top of the social hierarchy in the English establishment in Valparaiso. Whether English or Spanish, there was a definite social structure in Chile in the 1800s. The Sommers were clearly high society. Though Eliza was not formally of the family, her “Aunt Rose” was raising her as though she was, thus her education and Rose’s plan of an advantageous marriage.
The marriage plans came to naught when Rose fell madly in love with Jaoquin Andieta, an extremely handsome common laborer. And Eliza’s plans were thrown asunder when Joaquin came under the spell of the California Gold Rush of 1849. In his mind, he would have much more to offer Rose, and importantly, her family, if the reported gold made him a rich man. Thus, off to California he sailed.
What’s a determined girl in love going to do but follow him? That’s where a Chinese doctor named Tao Chi’en comes in. Since he is not licensed to practice, he is presently employed as a ship’s cook; it’s in that role that he is able to smuggle Eliza on board and keep her hidden (a grueling trial for Eliza) for the duration of the trip.
California, then and now, is a big place. Since the ship Eliza arrived on landed in San Francisco, and it was a key starting point for many of the prospective prospectors, that’s where Eliza started looking for her “brother.” Afraid to leave Eliza alone in her weakened condition, Tao Chi’en also stayed in San Francisco and became essential in Eliza’s search. For a young woman to exist in a society of single men and prostitutes, it became necessary for Eliza to become Tao’s deaf and dumb brother. Much of her Gold Rush search for her lover was necessarily as a young male.
Allende presents an interesting picture of California’s gold rush. Made clear is the cruel treatment of the Chinese and the Hispanics by the “Yanquis.” Also clear is the harsh reality of life in California at the time. To say the least, it was a troublesome existence. The people who got rich were seldom the miners. Those enterprising enough to supply the wants and needs did well.
As often happens with me, it took me a while to get engaged in the adventure described. Initially Eliza’s life in Chile didn’t hold my interest. But her life there has a lot to do with the plot.
The author does considerable foreshadowing in the book. I thought it might spoil the ending. My experience was that it actually made me anxious to get to the end to see if it came out like I thought it would.