Now this is what I’m talking about, folks. This book is everything historical fiction ought to be. When I started reading, from the plot setup and quality of writing, I knew it was going to be good. What I didn’t know was that over the next 300-odd pages, it was going to join the ranks of the best historical fiction I’ve read.
Each Bright River begins with Kitty Gatewood, a young woman from South Carolina, who’s just paid a premium to travel by ship (accompanied by her slave, of course) from Charleston, around Cape Horn, up the West coast, through the mouth of the Willamette River, before finally landing in Oregon City, the bustling unofficial capital of the unofficial Oregon territory. Kitty’s arrival causes quite a stir. For one thing, she’s a perfect image of a Southern belle, dressed in all kinds of finery and not caring if she ruins her satin slippers by getting mud on them; she obviously comes from a place where money is easily come by.
Plus, she unabashedly brings her slave onto land. Slavery is, at this time (around 1845), a hotly-contested issue. Back East, politicians are debating whether Oregon, if properly admitted as a Territory (it’s currently self-governing, jointly occupied by the Americans and British), will allow slaves. Meanwhile in Oregon, the settlers have already formed their policy: if a slave steps on this land, he or she will be whipped until he or she leaves. Technically, this policy only applies if the slave resides in the area—not if they’re merely a visitor, like Kitty’s slave. But not everyone is keen on observing technicalities…
From almost the moment she steps on Oregon soil, Kitty meets Curt Fletcher, a local hotshot who, along with his best friend Sunset, make a good living by running goods from Oregon City to Puget Sound, a small settlement about 200 miles north. In their first unofficial meeting, Curt and Kitty also manage to have an argument—a theme that persists throughout the novel.
Oregon City’s full of recent arrivals off the Oregon Trail, so the only place Kitty finds to stay is the cabin of an asthmatic man and his friendly wife. Kitty immediately sets about trying to find her fiance, a cousin also from South Carolina, who’s inherited the thriving plantation Kitty’s father owned. He’s inherited the plantation on the understanding that Kitty would be his wife, and Kitty is eager to make this a reality. From little hints—perhaps a vague doubt that lodges in Kitty’s mind—we understand that this fiance is not the sturdiest person to rely on.
Kitty traces her fiance to a land claim near Newmarket, the Puget Sound settlement. Next she must get a letter to him, informing him of her father’s death and the inheritance. No north-bound boats are leaving for at least a few weeks, though, and it would take just as long for someone to carry a letter to Newmarket. Kitty decides she can’t sit around for a month, waiting for her fiance’s response. She decides to go to Newmarket and see him herself.
Unfortunately for her, the group heading in that direction is headed by none other than Curt Fletcher and his friend Sunset. She pays a handsome fee to join the group. But as soon as they start traveling and camping out, Kitty sees she’s in over her head. None of her skills—let alone her expensive, dainty clothes—equip her for this rough, difficult lifestyle. Fletcher unsympathetically informs her that she can turn back, since she’s obviously not cut out for this.
Well, she’ll show him. That skepticism is all it takes for her to summon extra reserves and push herself onward. On the way, she also befriends Sunset, who, frankly, is perhaps the most admirable, wonderful man I’ve ever come across in literature. With Sunset by her side explaining things, Kitty’s eye becomes better attuned to the beautiful, untamed land and the people, native and pioneer alike, who inhabit it. Through the eyes of the men, we also see how the numerous conflicts with the Indians are, in Sunset’s metaphor, like wildfire: the flame might be extinguished in one area, but that doesn’t mean it’s not catching fire somewhere else. (Later in the book, when historically factual clashes occur, the storytelling doesn’t overlook the violence; just wanted to warn you.)
By this time Curt has openly declared to Kitty that no man will ever marry her but himself. Kitty continues to be appalled by this rough, arrogant man, though she is admittedly a bit attracted to him. Still, there’s her fiance. When the group finally arrives at Newmarket, Kitty goes to see her fiance—“Surprise!” But it’s not a pleasant surprise, and Kitty’s story takes a strong shift.
One of the things I love about Each Bright River is the way Kitty’s character develops. At first, I thought oh great, here’s another beautiful, saucy heroine, ruled by pride, attracted to an equally proud man, clashes and misunderstandings soon to follow…It is a historical fiction formula; there’s no denying it. But the author doesn’t let the story, or Kitty, or the romantic side of the plot, be limited to this formula. Kitty’s naive pride transforms into a clear head and the ability to support and defend herself. (Seriously, this lady can defend herself!) By incorporating Sunset, Curt Fletcher’s best friend, into the story, the standard romance formula is also challenged.
Another reason I love this book is for the history. I was born in Portland, and recently I moved to another part of the Northwest. So it was lots of fun to get these well-spaced, contextualized dosages of history, where I went, “Oh, that’s where that name comes from…Hey, I know where that is!” Of course, I learned about many historical events and issues that I’d never heard of before; I had to refrain myself from checking Wikipedia and thereby ruining the suspense of the story.
Even if you’re not from the Northwest and have never been here, Each Bright River has a wide appeal. It reminded me of other great pioneer-type historical fiction I’ve read, like Cimarron, The River Witch, and Sara Dane. It also felt like a higher-quality version of more popular historical fiction, like the Outlander series (minus the time travel and sex), Donati’s Into the Wilderness series, and John Jakes’ novels. Each Bright River could have easily become a series, and if it had been, at this very moment I would be lining the next books up on my shelf. (And yet McNeilly only appears to have written one other book, Praise at Morning, and it’s unrelated to this one.)
Moreover, since this was first published in 1950, there’s historically accurate episodes of violence, but there’s no sex. A kiss is the steamiest it gets. There is romance, but the book is not limited to the romance genre. I’d say it’s more of a historical adventure featuring an industrious woman. In this way, to me it’s a stronger book than either Outlander or Into the Wilderness, and its pacing is better than John Jakes’ hefty novels. I foresee myself lending and recommending Each Bright River to a lot of people.
Aw, to heck with other people—I could see myself re-reading this next week! And in the meantime, there will always be a special place in my heart, reserved just for Sunset…