Hindi Greenberg: ’Shall We Gather at the River’ — A review of Downieville historical fiction | TheUnion.com

Hindi Greenberg: ’Shall We Gather at the River’ — A review of Downieville historical fiction

You don’t have to have lived in or even visited Downieville in Sierra County, California, to appreciate and enjoy Katie Willmarth Green’s most recent volume of historical fiction, set in the later gold rush period of 1879-80. “Shall We Gather at the River?” is the third in Green’s trilogy, documenting with researched accuracy the life and times of the community of Downieville, its surrounding environs, and individuals who lived there during that particularly tumultuous period of social, political and cultural change in both California and America.

For history buffs—and particularly Gold Country aficionados—this book is rich in facts, details and photos, as well as documenting California and American historical occurrences, locations, living situations, methods of transport, housekeeping techniques, religious practices, political beliefs and policies, and daily doings. The author has a particularly keen interest in all aspects of the history of the Downieville area since she lived with her family in a cabin at Shady Flat in Sierra County (where some of this story takes place) from ages six to sixteen and has returned to her childhood stomping grounds numerous times during her adult life.

For those less interested in the past, instead preferring a good human interest tale, Green has styled her saga as a coming-of-age story focusing on fourteen-year-old Debbie Whitney, and including her ‘49er miner/timberman father, David, and mother, Eliza, along with a colorful cast of neighbors, miners, tradespeople, ranchers, farmers and small business owners. All these characters Green painstakingly researched in the historical records of multiple counties and states. However, since such records don’t note personal conversations, the author took the liberty of playing “fly on the wall” to flesh out her subjects, imputing conversations, emotions, motivations, and undocumented doings to bring them to life. This makes the story more interesting than if it were conveyed merely as an “old times” narrative, effectively drawing the reader into the very human milieu of the gold mining era.

Even if you haven’t read the previous two volumes of the trilogy, which were each set five years earlier, this third tome has sufficient references to those previous stories for it to stand on its own. In this book, you are introduced to the dismal fact that Debbie’s mother Eliza is dying of cancer and the teenager is responsible for her daily care and administering the pain-killing doses of laudanum while her father David is up-country working his timber interests. But Debbie also has friends, loves the Yuba River and the nature surrounding it, is a prolific letter writer, and spends a lot of time both daydreaming and deep-thinking. She has sometimes naïve, sometime advanced attitudes about femininity, culture, racial discrimination, political issues, and religion, which allow her internal ruminations, as well as her interactions with family, friends and community members, to illuminate what it was like to grow up in those years.

The three main protagonists—Debbie, David and Eliza—feel congruent and sufficiently fleshed out to the time period so that the narrative is credible and interesting. I also enjoyed reading about some of the more peripheral characters—the family with multitudes of kids and how the older ones were responsible for caring for the younger, the woman who made her living doing everyone’s laundry, the girl a few years older than Debbie who was a romantic and teased the younger girl about her tomboyish ways.

Green’s writing is fluid and stimulating. When I’d arrive at the end of a chapter, even if the hour were late, I’d say to myself, “Oh, just one more,” and then I’d instead read two or three chapters. I felt involved and invested in the people and the places; when I finished the book, I wanted to know what happened to the various characters during their later years. Fortunately, the author included an “Afterword: Notes About Some Principal Characters,” so that historical details of their later lives were set forth. At least I felt a bit of resolution as to what would befall them following the brief two-year period covered by this book.

Informatively, Green includes footnotes within each chapter as well as identifications of the many photos, prints and drawings, and various other interesting material following the “Afterword.”

Green’s book isn’t currently available in any local bookstores, but if you are interested in securing your own copy, you can contact her at greengal2@charter.net. She also has a website containing snippets of interesting information at http://www.sierragoldrushhistory.com.

Hindi Greenberg first met Katie Green fifteen years ago, when Katie gave a fascinating historical talk at the Madelyn Helling Library in Nevada City. Afterwards, Hindi accosted her in the parking lot and persuaded Katie to continue her reflections on gold country history. They have continued their communications from afar, now that Katie removed to the wilds of Wisconsin.


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