This slight and lyrical novel is based on the life of pioneer Sarah Royce, pioneer, memoirist, and mother. Strong-willed, fiercely intelligent and conventionally religious – but with a deep mystical streak – Sarah Royce took to the California trail in the Gold Rush year of 1849. She did not wish to be separated from her husband, Josiah Royce, left behind to wait for him in Iowa. Nor did she wish to go with him and be separated from her baby daughter, and so they all went together… but Sarah refused to countenance traveling on a Sunday, the Lords’ Day. They traveled with one party, and then another – coping with cholera and scares with Indians, the desert and the death of precious stock animals, wagon wheels breaking and all those elements which made travel on the emigrant trails west such a purgatorial experience. There were rewards, of course; they made friends, especially the young Frenchman Raoul Turnand and his traveling partner, Fernando the muleteer. Sarah saw a vision of Jesus in a burning bush in the desert, an experience which marked her for the rest of her life.

And she, with her husband and child eventually arrived in California – that strange and dreaming land made even stranger, almost hallucinatory by an inrush of gold-seekers from America and just about every other country on earth. She was one of the very few articulate and observant women who were in that place and in that time, when to be a respectable married woman – or indeed any kind of woman at all – was a being of such rarity as to be practically an instant celebrity. Robert Hine visualizes her life and feelings with considerable sensitivity; the terrible wonderful journey, and the wonderful, hallucinatory experience of living in California, where hungry gold miners could pay her more for a single loaf of bread than her husband could earn working in the mines for a whole day. Sarah also encounters an old friend with dreadful scars and even more dreadful secrets, never quite daring to probe either one of them. The novel ends on an ambivalent note; was her old friend directly responsible for the death of another, and indirectly for the mob-lynching of the man held to be guilty? Sarah seems to accept her friends’ responsibility, but at the same time appears to feel that she owes her friend silence on the matter; perhaps God is best positioned to judge.

The novel is somewhat marred by occasional anachronisms and curious descriptions. Some of them I should better describe them as ‘presentisms’ – the use of a jarringly modern phrase or concept. For example, a woman conceals burn scars by wearing ‘floppy hats and scarves’ – a 19th century woman would have worn bonnets and veils to conceal such disfigurement. Would a small residence in San Francisco offered running water in the kitchen sink in 1850? A character draws a likeness of an emigrant company to a rubber band; tight when wrapped around danger and loose without peril – but the rubber band had only just been invented in 1845. Would a gold-seeker four years later been aware of such an invention? A meadow in the middle of the desert is described as having pines and yellow aspens growing in it (high-mountain trees? In the 40-Mile desert?) And at one point, an ox-team hitched to a wagon is described as being driven by reins in the hands of a driver sitting on the wagon seat – not so, ox teams were driven by someone walking next to the lead team and giving verbal commands. The author is described as a distinguished academic historian, so I do wonder how such curiosities slipped by in an otherwise satisfactory book.

I Have Seen the Fire will be available from bookstores, on-line bookstores and from the publisher, the University of New Mexico Press.

Sgt. Mom is a free-lance writer and member of the Independent Authors Guild who lives in San Antonio and blogs at The Daily Brief. Her current book “To Truckee’s Trail” is available here. More about her books is at her website www.celiahayes.com.

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