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The Specter*

Intriguing Tale of Northern California in the 1800s

As someone who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I nearly laughed out loud at the first sentence in this book–and not in a good way! The author states that San Francisco hadn’t seen as damp a day like as was happening since the Civil War. As the novel takes place in the early 1890s, that would mean that San Francisco hadn’t seen such a damp day in nearly thirty years! Having been in San Francisco in all seasons, I can say that it can be very damp there quite often! These would be hard to quantify, and there certainly wouldn’t be thirty years in between damp days.

Once I got beyond that, I found parts of this book to show an interesting glimpse of Northern California in the Gilded Age as well as harkening back to the early days of the city and state around the time of California’s statehood. I find myself wondering at the accuracy of the history, especially the part referring to the 1850s, when San Francisco was still kind of a rough western city. True, not as rough as the little shanty towns that sprung up around state during the gold rush, but certainly nothing like the city as we think of it now (or even as it would have been in the 1890s. The term Gilded Age was really an accurate reflection of San Francisco at that time because of the wealth that many San Franciscans had because of the former gold rush as well as the Comstock silver rush. In a tiny little detail that I found odd, the author mentioned two prominent newspapers in the city during the 1890s, one of them the Chronicle and the other the Sun. I was surprised that the Examiner wasn’t mentioned, because that flagship newspaper became a part of Hearst corporation about ten years before the novel would have started–and a very young William Randolph was given it by his father five years before.

The novel is partly epistolary, with a large chunk of the second half of the book being letters that the heroine’s grandmother wrote back to her family when she stayed in an artist colony just north of the city as a young woman. These letters were fascinating, as they revealed a very different sort of existence for young women in the 1850s, but I wish they had been integrated into the greater story better. The letters were each just given their own chapter, with no commentary from the granddaughter, Vivian, who is the protagonist of the story. This made it feel like they were just stuck in there, as they weren’t really anchored to the rest of the story as much as they could have been. That said, I still did find this book to be an interesting look back into two very different and fascinating times of early California history.