I had never heard of this novel, even though it was a 1959 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction and apparently was made into short-lived television series, which I missed as well.
Totally aimed at an adult audience, Taylor alternates the narration from the point of view of Jaimie, who is thirteen, and his dreamer of a dad’s journals that he kept on the trip and letters he wrote to his wife Melissa, which he signed Sardius McPheeters (M.D., Univ. Edinburgh).
Beginning in Louisville, Kentucky, in March of 1849, Sardius McPheeters, owing creditors and disliking his life as a doctor, dreams of striking out for California and panning for gold. A natural eavesdropper, Jaimie overhears the discussion between his mother and father about the possibility of the trip and “opportunity,” and much to his liking, when his mother questions Jaimie’s being left without a father during these important years, his father says, “why -- I’ll take him with me.”
Thus begins the “travels” of Jaimie and his father cross country to try their hand at prospecting in California.
No wonder this book sold a million copies in 1958 --- it’s a page turner and hilarious. Like Twain, Taylor pokes fun at all in this novel --- fur trappers, East coast judges, the Mormons, Native Americans, religion, democracy, marriage -- but the cast of characters that Taylor brings alive in this book rival Jim, or Tom, or even the Duke and the Dalphin of Huck Finn fame.
The book is not for the young --- Taylor’s descriptions of the scoundrels, drunkards, and other misfits that Jaimie meets holds nothing back, and, in particular, he vividly tells of the “rites of passage” of a variety of Native American tribes -- in fact, I had to skim some of it as there was too much of a realistic brutality to it -- and trust me, I still got the gist of it.
I loved, however, Jaimie as narrator, as he reminded me so much of Huck Finn. As objective narrator, but an innocent one, Jamie tries to report what he has seen, and in that process makes some rather humorous sometimes hilarious comments as in this one about his running into Black Podee, one of the “big chiefs” in Nebraska:
The [Indian] name rang a bell. It was unusual for an Indian, because they mainly depend for their names on some kind of description, like the activities of animals. Many Indian names are so forthright they never get into books. On the other hand, they don’t have any curse words; there isn’t anything in the Indians’ language like the profanity in ours. It’s a defect, and has slowed them up in dealing with the higher civilization.
.....or this comment from his dad about a particularly “dim” woman : "A woman on that level of intellect should be boiled down for glue."
There were lines, descriptions, and characters who made me laugh out loud --- a subtlety of humor that was so refreshing to read.
Like Huck Finn, Jaimie could also be wise ---as he and his dad took leave of a family who had been good to them in California, Jamie tells that“ I hurt inside. Another part of our adventure was over, and even then, I realized that nothing ever comes back again quite the same. Things roll on, new sights take the place of the old, and the only way you can do it over is remember.”
Taylor’s a superior storyteller --- and this is a great book for a trip -- or for a long, cool weekend in the mountains. :)