Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Volmer’s novel of the California Gold Rush era is the anarchy of a small mining town, Motherlode, and the eccentric souls who labor long days in filthy canvas pants, drink themselves into a stupor at the Victoria Hotel each night, and do the same thing the next day. Swapping outrageous stories as whiskey flows, they keep their own counsel, dreamers and entrepreneurs in search of elusive wealth.
They ask few questions and give wide berth to one another, so when young Alex arrives in town - a girl disguised as a boy - she receives a friendly ribbing and a speculative glance from Emaline, the proprietor of the Victoria Hotel, a large-bosomed woman with the proverbial heart of gold and a sharp tongue to settle any disagreements. For the most part, Alex remains in the shadows, a source of curiosity but no threat. Unfortunately, when she hits a strike, every eye is on her, the moniker “Golden Boy” inspiring a surfeit of outsiders to descend upon Motherlode.
Alex’s troubled past rides into town with strangers who bear the stories of outlaws and highwaymen, murderers and runaway wives. She distracts herself with the strenuous efforts of mining her claim by day, only to be haunted by bloody nightmares each night in her stifling, windowless room. A damsel in distress of Shakespearean proportions, what little comfort Alex finds in Motherlode and a fractious friendship with Emaline will be destroyed by the mendacity of others.
Equally Shakespearean is the tough-as-nails Emaline, a proprietress who dispenses her favors to the dirt-crusted miners for a price - but kicks them out before midnight - and harbors a deep love for ex-slave Jedidiah. But this is a violent slice of California history, where greed and ambition pollute the few kindnesses rendered, exhausted and distrustful men ever on the alert for a scapegoat to vent their frustrations. The Celestials are easy marks, their industry and patience a constant aggravation to suspicious miners.
Alex survives the careless brutality of men by becoming one, her relationship with Emaline at the heart of Volmer’s novel. But the past is closing in, heralded by the arrival of smooth-talking politicians, storekeepers, the busybody wives in voluminous skirts waving Bibles in one hand, the other warning sinners of God’s judgment. California legend is built on the labor and vision of miners, their personal freedoms as valuable as the whiskey that delivers nightly oblivion, destined to clash with the do-gooders who trail behind them like carrion birds. But, for a brief time, Alex is the Golden Boy, Emaline the wise woman who keeps these randy men in check until the envy of one reigns destruction on all.
Volmer beautifully captures the impermanence of life in the gold fields, the fever-pitch of greed, ambition and backbreaking labor that offers the illusion of gold at the end of the rainbow. In a shabby hotel with pretensions of gentility, Alex finds a place to heal from the wounds of an indifferent world, soothed by the kindness of the rough-hewn Emaline, a heart of gold richer than any strike.