It’s no ordinary woman who would travel alone to Alaska, a place where men reportedly outnumber women a hundred to one, but the circumstances that Eliza previously endured give her the courage to take this unusual step. What’s more, they convince her that she can succeed in her goal: to run a bakery.
Following the introduction, the book is evenly split into two sections – before and after – which illustrate different aspects of women’s pioneering experiences in the Pacific Northwest. The contemplative, slower-moving first half chronicles the year and more that Eliza, solidly built and bookish, had spent in an isolated cabin on Cypress Island, in Washington State’s San Juan Islands, after losing her son (much beloved) and minister husband (not so much) in an epidemic.
Eliza establishes a rhythm for the daily chores while remembering her earlier life and enduring a burden of heavy grief. Kate Chopin, a Missourian like herself, gives her inspiration through her writing and actions. Abundant with details on life on a remote island – fishing, canning, plant-gathering, even recipes – the writing sometimes falls into repetitive patterns (of the form “she did this, she did that”) while is beautifully lyrical in others:
“She stares through the uncurtained window above the chipped enamel sink and cannot see through the dense fog that descends over Cypress. Every shade of grey colors the landscape, from steely clouds that conceal the daylight to the vague cinereous mound or Orcas rising out of the dusky sea.”
In the second half, Eliza establishes her shop in Skagway, a Gold Rush base camp barely a year old, forms a close friendship with a local madam (one of the novel’s most enjoyable aspects), and gets reacquainted with her feminine nature while avoiding romance – at least until she’s ready to approach it on her own terms. Sweeney avoids artificial drama, instead focusing on Eliza’s blossoming self-image and how she finds a home in the energetic, rough-hewn mining town, which gives those with a painful past a place to make their fortunes or die trying.
Most of the novel is written in third person; the story also dips occasionally into Eliza’s first-person viewpoint, via her thoughts and short diary-style notes that begin each chapter. This further illustrates her practical mindset. This is a satisfying read, one which brings to life a short-lived time in American history, and which acknowledges and celebrates the many facets of womanhood.
Ashley E. Sweeney's Eliza Waite was published by She Writes Press in May ($16.95 trade pb/$9.95 ebook, 329pp, including period recipes.)