“Eliza Waite” by Ashley E. Sweeney
LaConner author Ashley E. Sweeney’s debut novel, “Eliza Waite,” ranges along the Salish Sea. Set at the very end of the 19th century, this story begins on a desolate island in the San Juan archipelago, where a young widow ekes out an existence.
Eliza has already seen misfortune enough in her lifetime. Although born into a well-to-do Missouri family, at a young age she was raped and impregnated by her uncle, spurned by her parents, and consigned to a loveless marriage. She and her son, Jonathan, followed her pastor husband from the Midwest to remote Cypress Island, where he served a small congregation.
But when smallpox sweeps through the community, it claims the lives of many, including her husband and beloved boy. The few survivors burn the settlement to the ground and abandon the island.
Only a hermit and Eliza stay behind. Where else would she go?
The first half of the book is devoted to Eliza’s days of grief-filled subsistence — she chops wood, tends her garden, and bakes for herself and her sole neighbor. Infrequently, she rows across the strait to Orcas Island to stock up on supplies and books from the mercantile run by Old Steiner. Returning to her cabin, she loses herself in the works of Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson and feminist author Kate Chopin.
But one wintry day, Eliza sustains a serious injury that requires medical attention. In a delirium, she attempts to row herself over to Orcas Island. She is met partway across the strait by Old Steiner’s nephew, who arrived on Orcas only recently to help his uncle.
During her weeks of recuperation in the rooms above the store, she takes a shine to this mysterious man who had come to her rescue. Even after she returns to Cypress Island, the nephew makes occasional visits to check up on her.
Eliza, true to her last name, waits for romance to blossom — but as the seasons go by, things take a very different turn. Finally she realizes that she must move on — not even her son’s grave can keep her on this isolated rock in this loveless sea.
Casting her lot with so many others who are seeking to better their lives, in the Spring of 1898 Eliza boards a ship with folks who are heading for the Klondike, lured by the promise of gold.
The book’s second half centers on Eliza’s plan to open a bakery in Skagway, the assembly point for Yukon-bound prospectors. In this rough-and-tumble world of fortune-seekers, Eliza reinvents herself and awakens to new possibilities — though never completely banishing the dark days in her past.
Sweeney presents two starkly different concepts of time in this bifurcated novel — the 19th century’s deliberate passage of days juxtaposed against the upcoming 20th century’s hurly-burly clip. She renders this well, although her storytelling sometimes relies too much on expedience, such as employing infrequent but jarring shifts in point of view, and resorting to a rote ending.
The Bookmonger review appears each week in Take Five. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.