Gold Rush Girl by Avi

Review by Micah Killjoy

Candlewick Press, 10 March 2020

306 pages, hardback, $23.99 CAD, ISBN: 978-1-5362-0679-1

Ages 10-14, Grades 4-9

Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

If you have never taken part in the departure of a great ocean sailing ship, I pity you. One cannot begin to comprehend the commotion and exhilarating chaos that prevails. It is like a Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve in one, and in my view, all great changes in life should be celebrated.

Consider the Providence wharf that cold and blustery day, with bits of confetti-like snow flecking the air: Crowds of people going on and off the great three-masted ship Stephanie K. People joyfully or tearfully wishing one another well. People with faces full of sorrow. People with faces full of glee. People engaged in heart-clinging farewells. People making hasty goodbye, as if separation could not come fast enough. On the wharf, men’s tall hats so numerous it was like a city of smokeless chimneys.

Oh, to be a thirteen-year-old saving my brother from child traffickers on a foggy San Francisco day in 1849. Thanks to the novel Gold Rush Girl, I got to imagine living just such a life. 

Victoria Blaisdell is thirteen years old and living in the stuffy world of 19th century Rhode Island when her father’s business goes bankrupt. Her family’s life is upended when he decides to pursue the latest get-rich-quick scheme of gold mining in San Francisco, bringing along her ten-year-old brother, Jacob. Victoria, however, desperately wants an adventure and sneaks along. Once in California her father goes to seek his fortune in the gold mines and leaves her as sole caretaker for her brother. She begins to revel in her independence, but when Jacob is kidnapped, she must outsmart the child trafficking ‘crimps’ and search for him among the dozens of abandoned ships in San Francisco Bay’s ‘Rotten Row.’

Avi builds a rich historic world through use of cultural details and setting descriptions. An example might be how Victoria’s hero, Jane Eyre, is used as a role model for Victoria in both action and voice.  Jayne Eyre quotes such as “Your will shall define your destiny,” and “I would rather be happy than dignified,” become echoing refrains whenever Victoria deals with conflict. To those who have read his now-classic True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Avi revisits familiar terrain, touching on explanations of ships and ship jargon without getting too weighty. A light internet search may be necessary for those who are totally new to sailing culture, but for the most part we learn with Victoria as she adventures around the Bay.

But there are some strange moments. Historicity is always a difficult task in writing historical fiction and one can empathize with Avi for the difficult puzzle he gave himself to solve: how to navigate an Anglo middle-class teen girl in 1848 into a swashbuckling adventurer? How to do so without killing or vilifying family and thus creating yet another emotional plot arch to unsnarl? To get Victoria from a dignified young lady to a life of derring-do, he jumps her through a series of somewhat fantastical hoops, starting with a convoluted stow away scheme that includes two days of crossdressing during a seven-month voyage, before her father ditches her in the tent city of San Francisco where she then becomes the equivalent of a single parent. While middle-grade and young adult genres often rely on the incompetence of adults to thrust young protagonists into taking power of their own lives, this seems especially negligent. To top it off, the writing occasionally feels dated, like the characters are part of a 1990’s TV cast with token racial representation but only a vague head nod towards any deeper exploration of identity.

That said, none of those points should deter any young reader looking for some fast-paced gold rush literature. Karen Cushman’s The Ballad of Lucy Whipple and Liza Ketchum’s Newsgirl are also fun reads that explore the same history as Gold Rush Girl.

Micah Killjoy is a Creative Writing BFA student at UBC. They like reading and writing about history and daydreaming about decolonization, bad poetry and having manageable hair.

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