For Your Reading Pleasure: Embracing the Elephant
Coming of Age as America Comes of Age
History happens around us. Average citizens daily find themselves in the midst of great movements that will be the stuff of history some day, but rarely are they heard from and, even more rarely, do they recognize the significance of such a moment as it is experienced. It is usually in hindsight that the importance of an event is fully realized.
I can't attest to Guinevere Walker's full recognition of the importance of the California Gold Rush of 1848 in which she unwittingly finds herself, but I can attest to her skill as a chronicler of the event. Even at the tender age of 11, her powers of observation are keen. Furthermore, the child herself embodies everything required of each new immigrant to the newly minted U.S. territory of California: determination, resilience, resourcefulness, and vision.
Embracing the Elephant by Lori Hart Beninger is an inspiring novel of the spirit of California.
What It's About
In January of 1848, at a remote site in the territory of California (where John Sutter hopes to locate his new lumber mill), foreman James Marshall finds a nugget of gold in the American River. It is the first of many to come. However, because of the communications of the day (or lack thereof), the word of this event will not even reach the closest "big" town, San Francisco, until March of that year.
On the very same day the gold discovery is finally reported in a San Francisco newspaper, three thousand miles away in Boston, Massachusetts, young Guinevere Walker (called Guine for short) prepares to embark on a perilous journey: she will sail from New York Harbor, around Cape Horn, then to the small California town of San Francisco where her grieving father fled following the death of her mother. Like the rest of the population of the East Coast, she knows nothing of the golden discovery or of the turmoil it will occasion -- all Guine wants is to be reunited with her father.
It is not until more than halfway through the treacherous sea voyage that Guine and her traveling companions (the Dunsfords, a missionary family of nine) finally learn of the gold and the mass migration it triggers. Therefore, in addition to the perils of the sea, Guine must endure the dangers brought by fortune hunters - thousands of them, flooding into the California territory in numbers far greater than the land and its native inhabitants can bear.
As she ventures closer to the source of the chaos, Guine struggles to adapt to the novelty of her surroundings, the new relationship she must forge with her father, her place in the amorphous society in which she finds herself, and the inchoate stirrings of womanhood. Along her journey, she encounters people who have come to exploit the wilderness and those who are determined to bring order and civilization to this beautiful land.
What Makes It A Good Story
Fast-moving, compelling, and riddled with historical references that enlighten without bludgeoning, Embracing the Elephant is a good, old-fashioned adventure on the surface. Don't let that fool you, however, for rich psychological undertones provide an emotional core that few pure adventures offer.
Guine is not yet old enough to be tainted by the restrictions and prejudices of the society from which she has ventured, although she is fully aware of their presence and influence on others. At an age when most girls of her social station would be learning the lady-like skills she will be expected to use throughout her life, Guine is thrust into a society where there are few polite rules and no one to enforce any that may exist. Forced to rely on her instincts and resourcefulness, the child faces obstacles head-on.
In a world where thousands of gold seekers have come from around the world to "See the Elephant" - a common phrase of the time used by the fortune hunters to represent their desire to experience something unique and, perhaps, risky -- Guine learns to embrace a new life.
What Makes It A 5-Star Read
(and a good gift for any reader, including young adults)
Well-written and engaging, this is a story for adults and teens alike (I do not recommend it for anyone below the age of 12 due to some of the disturbing events). Guine's observations are tinged with a wry wit that belies her age, but there is an innocence about her that is refreshing and believable. She is smart and resourceful without being flippant; headstrong and determined without being crass. Perhaps her Aunt Margaret best describes the child: "Her manners are superb, Harold, but she will not bend to rule." The reader experiences both the frustrations of her guardians and the yearnings of the abandoned child.
Most of the other books I have reviewed and will be reviewing on Hubpages are better known, but I came across this one while reading a book review (Book Review: Broken For You) written by Ms. Beninger. I was curious and did some additional exploring. I must admit, my research was worth it. Her blog about writing in general and the trials and tribulations of getting Embracing the Elephant published offers a glimpse not only into the process, but the humorous and conversational style of the author (see her Lumbering Soul Trying to Fly blog).
Embracing the Elephant does not disappoint. It is a superb book.