Darrell Berkheimer: The joy of reading ‘The Gold Star of Shanghai’
Historical fiction provides us with some of the best reading. And local author Clifford Louis Gans has done a masterful job of relating an important part of Nevada County’s gold fever history with what’s happening today.
In his book, “The Golden Star of Shanghai,” Gans uses the relatively unusual technique of intertwining two fictional tales that span a period of 130 years. They are not flashbacks, but two completely separate, yet related, stories. The one involves a modern-era family while the other is an 1883 romance during the heyday of the Malakoff Diggins hydraulic mining.
Gans begins his book with the modern family of three touring Malakoff Diggins as part of its vacation, which later includes visits to the Foresthill Bridge and Bridgeport.
The family meets a pair of visiting young German men, and the five of them are awed by facts they learn about the diggings. They learn about the lasting damages caused by that type of mining – both at the mining sites and downstream all the way to the San Francisco Bay.
Gans then begins his 1883 fictional romance with his gambler hero moving between the wealthy North Bloomfield mine owners at the diggings and the leaders of the valley’s Anti-Debris Association. Two ruthless outlaws add to his troubles. From there, Gans switches back and forth between his two fictional stories throughout the book.
At times, Gans makes it quite difficult to lay his book aside to accommodate meals and other necessary interruptions. And what is most impressive is his thorough research, and how he refers to many historical and modern details.
The reader learns how comprehensive his research was as he describes the Chinese presence and cultural activities in Nevada County during the 1880s. He not only uses many examples of Chinese language, but displays a knowledge of the herbs and vegetables grown in the Chinese gardens, and how the Chinese cooking styles gained in popularity.
The romance – between the hero and a captive Chinese woman – provides Gans with reasons to cite the racism and subjugation of Chinese workers by Caucasians, plus the terror they face when caught in the midst of fighting by rival tongs.
His book also cites the importance of Judge Lorenzo Sawyer’s ruling to halt the damage caused by hydraulic mining – a precedent setting decision involving two years of litigation and 2,000 witnesses. It was that historic ruling that prompted the naming of Sacramento’s Sawyer Hotel.
In other historical details, he weaves in the disaster and deaths of the English Dam collapse, the period popularity of San Francisco’s Palace Hotel and Poodle Dog restaurant, and the notoriety of stagecoach driver Hank Monk. Monk was a legendary driver between Carson City and Placerville, known for his recklessness. He is mentioned in Mark Twain’s “Roughing it” and Idah Meacham Strobridge’s “The Land of the Purple Shadow.”
A particularly nice tidbit is Gans reference to “Pebbles,” the donkey who signals his premonition of danger – typical of how miners of the period regaled others with stories about the characteristics and personalities of their burros.
As part of his modern tale, the vacationing family takes note of the luxury the German pair is experiencing by traveling in a rented Mercedes motor home. That detail particularly resonated with me because it was only last June when Mary Orr and I spent three nights at an RV campground in British Columbia, where a group of German visitors were traveling together in five rented Mercedes motor homes.
Gans also has the family and visiting Germans saying farewell at a popular Auburn brewery, where they discuss craft beers and the fatal danger of “BASE-jumping” at the Foresthill Bridge.
I was prompted to meet with Gans and trade books after reading about him in The Union’s “Meet the Author” feature.
He reported one objective for his book was to provide a modern western novel, after he was asked repeatedly by readers why so few westerns were being written in recent years. He also fills another of his objectives by citing how the abuses of our environment have lasting effects that threaten the life of future generations — a lesson we sometimes ignore, and must learn over and over again.
Gans meets both those objectives in an entertaining way. And he plans to make “The Golden Star of Shanghai” the first in a series.
Darrell Berkheimer, who lives in Grass Valley, is a frequent contributor to The Union. He is the author of five books available through Amazon. Contact him at email@example.com.
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