Desert Isle Keeper
I hadn’t read Gwen Bristow’s Jubilee Trail in several years, but for some reason I woke up early one morning with the book’s plot running through my mind. More a historical novel than a romance, it nonetheless has an interesting, intelligent heroine and a tortured hero who fears gratitude – especially from the heroine – but doesn’t wallow in self-pity. The heroine never wanders into TSTL territory (though she is rather dense at times), and she makes mistakes to her regret. She also learns from her mistakes, and grows up into a well-rounded woman over the course of the novel. Mexican California is a sadly neglected setting in today’s historical romances, so it’s a welcome gem of a book.
When we first meet Garnet Cameron she is a sheltered debutante in 1844 New York City. She loves and is loved by her parents, but she is also bored. Her father puts it well when he considers his daughter’s character:
“He thought about the people who had come before them. The Huguenots, the Scottish Dissenters, the English pirates who had stormed up and down the coasts of the American colonies until they got old and virtuous and finally settled down on shore. [He] thought sometimes that a good many of the people who were heroes after they were dead must have been great nuisances while they were alive.”
Mr. Cameron sees those pioneering qualities – which he and his wife lack – in his 18-year-old daughter. When she asks permission to marry prairie trader Oliver Hale, who owns a California ranch, he reluctantly agrees. Mr. Cameron knows Garnet would not be happy with any of the conventional suitors who paid court to her before Oliver, but he also wonders whether Garnet is truly in love with Oliver, or with the freedom and adventure he represents. Once married, Garnet and Oliver start their journey to join a wagon train for California on the Santa Fe (or “Jubilee”) Trail. During a stop in New Orleans – where Oliver takes Garnet to some entertainment establishments no good woman in New York would be caught dead in – she meets a lady with the doubtful name of Florinda Grove. A dancer and singer, Florinda is also kind and good-natured, though a far cry from the proper debutantes of Garnet’s previous acquaintance. (Florinda’s favorite exclamation is “Hell for breakfast!”) Despite being on the run from the law, Florinda takes the time to help Garnet out of a tight spot. Garnet returns the favor when she and Oliver shelter Florinda and obtain a rather amusing disguise for the beautiful woman. The two women strike up an unlikely friendship that never falters despite months of separation. California is the kind of place Florinda has been looking for, where no one questions you about your past. She too decides to join a company crossing the Jubilee Trail.
In New Mexico during the grueling and adventurous journey across the desert and badlands, Garnet and Oliver are met by Oliver’s trading partner, John Ives, a blunt and practical man who can be both brutally honest and unexpectedly kind. Garnet is baffled by John’s reception of the news of her marriage, and he is not terribly warm towards her, making a mild attempt to persuade her not to continue on to California. Florinda also makes new friends, and plans to open up a saloon in a little pueblo named Los Angeles. It is not until Garnet and Oliver arrive in California and are given a very cold welcome from Oliver’s older brother, Charles, that Garnet begins to understand the serious mistake she made when she took Oliver at face value. Controlling, ambitious and small-minded, Charles is the villain of the book, and he entertained very different dreams for Oliver’s future. Garnet’s arrival has spoiled all his plans, and Garnet and Charles detest one another at first sight.
The book is rich with wonderful secondary characters, especially Nikolai Karakozof, a Russian who has been in California since he was a small child. Florinda calls him the Handsome Brute and the nickname sticks. He is also John Ives’ best friend, and a very sensitive, intuitive man. (I wish Ms. Bristow had thought to write a sequel with the Brute as her hero.) Texas, a drunken doctor, sobers up long enough to deliver Garnet’s baby, and later he saves her life. Silky Van Dorn becomes Florinda’s partner in the saloon, and the profits always come first for him. Several Mexican ladies, wives of Californios, open their homes to Garnet and Florinda (and even John) at times of need. But life in California is about to change dramatically, both for Californios and Americans, and Garnet is there to witness all the excitement firsthand.
While this is a serious novel, and Garnet’s experiences are sometimes life-threatening, the book has its lighter moments, as when Florinda discovers to her dismay that the hundreds of Mormon soldiers recently arrived in Los Angeles don’t drink alcoholic beverages. Garnet takes in the beauty of the landscapes and the fresh wonder of her new country with delight, something only John Ives understands. When Garnet’s dreams are completely destroyed by the grief of a crazed man, it is John who comes to her rescue. John Ives would definitely go onto my list of favorite heroes in literature. John admires Garnet’s strength of character and independence, but he fears for her future with Oliver. John has few friends, and he fights his feelings for Garnet while preferring to stay out of other people’s business. Garnet forces him to rethink that way of life, but can she teach him to trust love?
While Garnet is clearly the heroine of Jubilee Trail, it is Florinda who utters some of the book’s most memorable lines. When all barriers between John and Garnet have finally been swept away, Florinda gives this speech:
“Well dear, it’s plain that it doesn’t make any difference what I think. But I think you and John are the two stubbornest people I know. I think in a year you will be throwing dishes at each other. And in spite of all the good advice I have given you and am going to give you, I think by that time you’ll probably be the size and shape of a covered wagon. And I wonder what you’ll do then. However. Go ahead and do as you please, Garnet. I’ll be on your side cheering for you as long as I live.”
This enduring example of friendship and support between a “good woman” and a strumpet (in Garnet’s words) gives the novel its backbone.
Bristow chose to write about a very exciting period in California’s history: the turbulent transfer of the territory from Mexico to the United States. She winds up the story right on the eve of the Gold Rush, which was the focus of her second excellent historical novel of California, Calico Palace (1970). The only truly unfortunate part of both books is the author’s apparent feelings (revealed through the attitudes of her characters) toward tribes of Indians in California known as “Diggers.” As a native Californian, I know how badly the early European settlers treated the indigenous tribes here as in the rest of the U.S., and it is unfortunate that the author paints them in such a negative light. The attitudes are probably true to the period she is writing about, and marks a very sad aspect of our history. Despite that caveat, this is an interesting, well-written novel. Though out-of-print (the latest publication date I could find was a 1980 paperback), I found a number of used copies online for reasonable prices, and it should be available from public libraries as well. It’s well worth the search.