Reviews of River of Red Gold: A History Novel (Book 2, California Gold Trilogy)

River of Red Gold is a fascinating, gripping story that is firmly rooted in historical research yet reads with the power of good fiction. The setting is California gold country, from 1844 to 1853. The characters are all historical figures, though those about whom little is known are fleshed out through the writer’s imagination. The story moves from one documented event to another, with shifting points of view, but the primary voice is that of Howchia, or Maria, an Indian woman whose values overlay the narrative and whose destiny ultimately affirms hope in the midst of terrible loss.

“In the context of John Sutter’s fort, the first section of the novel . . . establishes the primary story thread in the developing relationship between Maria, a Miwok Indian, and Pedro Valdez, a Mexican soldier, part Spanish and part Indian. The second section of the novel focuses on Elitha Donner, a fourteen-year-old survivor of the ill-fated Donner party, and her unfortunate marriage to Perry McCoon. The lives of these characters and many others are intertwined and persuasively portrayed in a sprawling narrative that draws the reader into the suspenseful drama and the very human experiences of individuals who were living what has become California history. I found the book addictive — I had to keep reading but was sorry to finish it because I didn’t want to leave these characters I had come to know and care about.

“This is truly a multicultural, multiethnic portrayal of the California gold rush period. Yet I would not label it ‘politically correct.’ Rather, it seems that the author’s vision was born of a personal experience with the land, the places, the artifacts, with details then provided through historical research and interviews with descendants of the novel’s characters. The result is a work with the ring of truth, peopled with characters who come alive from the page. The author explores power in many forms. Ultimately, it is the power personified in Indian mythology which frames the narrative and inspires hope . . . Naida West’s novel not only brings life to authentic historical accounts but imaginatively gives voice to those who have left no written record but whose story is equally important and must be heard.”
Western Literature Association Journal

“. . . alive and bursting with excitement.”
The Sacramento Bee

“. . . a wonderful blending of dramatic history and insightful imagination . . . a delightful, rewarding read . . . gives voices to people that in the traditional Western stories have been silent . . . West is a scholar who can write popular fiction. Not many scholars can do that.”
— Richard Etulain, Director of the Center for the American West, University of New Mexico

“It is very hard to recommend this novel, not because it isn’t excellent but because everytime I try, the person to whom I am recommending it has already read it, and usually loved it as much as I did.

“I suppose every writer dreams of just ‘finding’ a great story while digging around in the back yard. Naida West did just that when she discovered the remains of a Gold Rush period ranch while trying to get the climbing beans to leave her squash alone.

“Some people would have dug through the old floor and continued the garden. Ms. West, a trained scholar and author of a number of works on historical subjects, went into high gear research, and the result is this dazzling novel, told mainly from the point of view of a Native American woman, of the tumultuous period when the White Man came to California is search of shiny metal and destroyed perhaps more than was gained.

“This is a sweeping, huge, novel. Though one’s sympathy is first engaged by Eagle Woman, the initial protagonist, the other characters, emblems of the many conflicting cultures that converge on Northern California in a brief and painful epoch, are no less real, no less fully rounded and rendered. From the hopeless ineptitude of Sutter, whose Mill starts the Rush, to the tragic bravado of the man who may be Joaquin Murrieta, these are all flesh and blood people whom history has painted as heroes or villains, but who had to go through their lives, day by day, without knowing that they would end up as legends.

“Stylistically the book is marvelous; but what lifts it apart from other historical novels is the sense of a spiritual reality that suffuses the landscape. Coyote is not a mythic figure here but a real presence and personage. When Native American spirituality manifests in the story, it makes your hair stand on end with its veracity. I suppose you could describe it as Magic Realism.

“Though Native Americans tell me they think there is too much ‘romance’ in it, it is still a very popular book with the tribal people with whom I have spoken, and they are all looking forward to more of the author’s work.

“But: in trying to find comparisons that will mean something to the reader of this review, I find myself surprised to be compelled to offer Stephen King.

“King is often shuffled to the side as a ‘mere writer of horror tales’; but a close examination shows him to be, perhaps, the best stylist to come on the scene since Vladimir Nobakov. King’s work bears close and scrupulous rereading for the dimension which it extends beyond its own confines.

“Naida West works at the same level of mythic canvas, painted and stretched taut to the point of tearing. The supernatural element is present, to be sure, but it is the literary element of horror — and let us be precise here: horror (as opposed to terror: which is the fear of the known) is that fear of the unknown which permeates King’s work, and which also permeates, in the same fashion, West’s work. But in West the horror (and the terror) are not figments of the imagination, placed by the skillful writer to elicit reaction, but rather, elements of historical reality.

“No scholar, detailing precisely the events of the Donner Party tragedy, has ever elicited in me the sheer, passionate horror that was endured by the children of the Donner Party as they were brought down from the mountains by their desperate rescuers. I wept uncontrollably with the pity and the terror of this scene, and then, when I had finished reading it, again with the hard realization that this was true, that it had happened!

“It is for the rare genius of a writer like West to elevate for us the most monstrous circumstances of history to the level of true Tragedy; that catharsis which purifies us of what we have felt to be terrible in our own lives, and allows us to rise out of our own miasma, back into the light by way of compassion.

“I give this book my absolute highest recommendation. Many have attempted something like it, but nobody, in my experience, has even come near the achievement.”
— Jon DeCles Reviews

“Definitely destined to become a classic of the 20th century . . .”
— Joyce Boda, local historian and literature lover, Stockton, California

“. . . tells the story of a Donner Party survivor set against the excitement of the California Gold rush. This beautifully written, haunting story is a must-read for Donner buffs and for those who like a good tale, well told . . . well researched and provides a glimpse of the personalities and the clash of cultures that marked the birth of California.”
Reno Gazette-Journal

“It took hold of my attention and never let it go. My ancestors and family members are the Miwok Indians.”
— Pat Blue Yonemura, Sacramento, California

“I rate the book right up there with Aztec by William Jennings and Sacajawea by Anna Lee Waldo.”
— Jodi Wyner-Holmes, The Bookplace, Elk Grove, California

“I have never, ever, never, never read such a delightful book . . . I’ve read zillions of great novels over the years, but this is the best.”
— Gail Hannan, instructor, American River College, Sierra and Yuba colleges, California

“You feel like you’re right there. You can smell the ones that stunk, and that’s being there!”
— Ellen Rosa, Wilton, California, descendant of Jared Sheldon, character in the book

“I didn’t want it to end. And when it did, the world looked different — the grass and trees, everything.”
— Lydia Samaniego, Spanish teacher, Placerville, California

“. . . excellent and soul-stirring saga . . . three-dimensional characters . . . profoundly immersing the reader . . .”
— Laurie MoGonagill, teacher, California history, Auburn, California

“. . . insightful, multicultural perspective . . . a wonderful analysis of power.”
— Deborah Moreno, history instructor, Cosumnes River College, California

“. . . historical characters from the Gold Rush era jump off the pages . . . a brilliant novel.”
— William M. Holden, author of Sacramento: Excursions Into Its History and Natural World

This book is used in college classes across the U.S. — English literature, English composition, American history, anthropology, and geography.

River of Red Gold (Book 2, California Gold Trilogy)
by Naida West
ISBN: 0965348725
624 pages; trade paper; endnotes; maps of ranchos and early settlements in California
Now available in a box set!

Updated March 6, 2014