Fugitive Wife

The Fugitive Wife

by Peter C. Brown

I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation. The book is The Fugitive Wife by Peter C Brown.

The author tells us he relied on the journals of his grandfather, who took part in the gold rush to Alaska at the turn of the century, and this is the best kind of historical fiction — heavy on the detail, with the bonus of characters you’ll want to root for. The wife of the title is Esther, a farm girl who only wants to make a success of her farm and her marriage. Circumstances force her to leave both behind and start over on the wild edge of the Alaskan coast. She meets Nate, bird watcher and school teacher turned prospector from back east, and they have nothing in common so naturally romance blooms. Also in the mix is the drunken lout of a husband, and Brown is such a skilled storyteller than we can understand and even sympathize with this basically unlikeable character. The setting is freezing, muddy and unforgiving, but there is also warmth and humanity.

I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation. The book, The Fugitive Wife by Peter C Brown.

I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation. The book is The Fugitive Wife by Peter C Brown.

So recently I talked about And She Was, which was that great book set in a fishing village in Alaska; truly, I thought, the most remote setting you could come up with. The story shifted between the exploits of a young woman in the 1980s, and the struggles of native Alaskan women through the arrival of the white people, near the turn of the century.

Boy, I said, I’m unlikely to read another book about such a distant place anytime soon. Then I turned around and picked up The Fugitive Wife. Welcome to Alaska in 1900. It was weirdly exciting, like recognizing someone in a crowd.  Hey, I recognize that remote frozen hellhole from the last book! The cool part was reading about the same time frame — roughly — but from the completely opposite perspective. In this book we hardly hear mention of the native population.  But I have learned an important lesson from reading these two books back to back — I was not cut out for frontier life. I complain if I have to ride in a car without heated seats; I don’t think I would have made it hiking across the tundra.

Fortunately Esther, the wife of the title, is made of much sterner stuff than I. She’s a farm girl from Minnesota — and that didn’t sound like a picnic either. All she wants is her own farm, and a life with her new husband Leonard. All Leonard wants is to drink whiskey with his pals down by the river. Esther is not amused. They argue about whether or not to try and keep farming, and after floods, famine, drought — no locusts, but everything else — I began to see Leonard’s point. Farming equals hard! And even if you and your drunken loser husband work like dogs from morning til night, you still get snakes living in the walls of your house. So Esther is a resolutely ‘stand by your farm, property is the only thing that is real in this life’ kind of woman. Leonard is shiftless and can’t commit. The tables turn when she has to pick up and just leaves the farm and the only place she’s ever known. Believe me, she has a good reason.  She heads — almost on a whim — for the newly opened coast of Alaska, and has to start a completely new life. She knows her horses, so she takes over duties in the stables and also delivers mail for the men — and the few women — of the gold rush. Leonard, who never started a job he wanted to finish, follows her with a new and singleminded determination. Esther didn’t count on meeting Nate Deaton, a schoolteacher from back east who has some big ideas about mining for gold. He’s a nice guy! And not a drunk! He’s totally cute and educated! He’s a bird watcher with personal hygiene, Esther, come on! So there are blizzards, and the gold doesn’t appear the way they want, and folks freeze to death going out to the outhouse, and get eaten by bears, and suddenly that farm out on the prairie is starting to look pretty good. And of course we’re just waiting for Leonard to show up — that’s when the real trouble will begin.

The author provides an afterword, where we learn that his grandfather joined the gold rush stampede to Nome in 1900 as an engineer for the Cape Nome hydraulic mining company, and this book leans heavily on his diaries. From the streets of Nome, which were mostly mud with boards over them, to life on some very rough seas, to the endless work of life on a frontier farm, Brown’s loving attention to detail shows on every page. Plus he’s created characters in Esther and Nate that I couldn’t help but root for.

I’m Kim Alexander on Fiction Nation and the book is The Fugitive Wife by Peter C Brown. Want to talk about books? Email me at Kim dot Alexander at xmradio dot com.

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