My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Historical fiction is my favorite genre, and Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende did not disappoint. For me good historical fiction is an engaging story with great complexity that contains characters, events, and places based on history that sparks my interest enough to do further research. In other words good historical fiction brings history alive.
Broadly speaking Daughter of Fortune is about people immigrating to North America in search of a better life. The great appeal for many was “Wiping the slate clean” and inventing a new life based on hard work and innovation without the societal shackles of the old worlds.
More particularly the story is of one woman’s journey, from Chile to America during the time of the California gold rush in the mid 1800s. Paralleling her physical journey is her emotional and spiritual journey, her journey from childhood to womanhood, and her journey to becoming an American (culturally if not legally). As a resident and lover of California this time in history is of high interest to me. The story made me think about the melange of people that came from around the world and the circumstances of the time that greatly influenced the foundation and development of California that persists to this day. Feminism is also a very important theme in this story, but I will say no more so as to not create spoilers.
The author gave an account of the California gold rush from a different point of view than what I learned in school (here in California): the non-white point of view. For example, it mentions how many gold rushers from Central and South America arrived before east coast Americans, because traveling by ship was faster than the overland route. Once the east coast Americans arrived and saw that some of the Mexican and South Americans were successful at finding gold new laws were created that were pointedly racist, and made it more difficult for non-white people. What little research I did after reading this makes me think this and other things mentioned in the story (like the infamous outlaw Joaquin Murrieta, and the “Spanish Dancer,” Lola Montez) are plausible, but because of conflicting stories and shady and sensationalized news reporting who can know for sure. It definitely calls into question history as taught in schools, and I will be very interested to read anything I find on the subjects. I’m basing this on when I was in high school in the 80s I’m not sure how they teach this part of California history today in California. It would be interesting to know!