Jessie: A Novel Based on the Life of Jessie Benton Fremont

Judy Alter, Author, J Alter, Author
Judy Alter, Author, J Alter, Author Bantam Books $25 (448p) ISBN 978-0-553-37465-0
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Alter's re-creation of Jessie Ann Benton Fremont's (1824-1902) exceptional life lulls the reader into forgetting that it is fiction. The winner of a Spur for Mattie, Alter is a meticulous researcher but never at the expense of the skillful first-person narrative. Jessie was the daughter of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton (great-uncle of the painter) and an outspoken, ambitious, brilliant woman in a time not quite ready for her. At 17, she eloped with the handsome, clever and illegitimate John Charles Fremont, bringing to him the political cunning and connections that helped build his reknown as an explorer of the West. Plucky Jessie (with kids in tow) sometimes joined John in his globe-trotting--out to California gold country via Panama and Europe--and helped him write widely read reports on the West. Fremont's undertakings (and consequently Jessie's) were not always successful--he was, as Alter's heroine describes him, an ``explorer, topographer, soldier of fortune, presidential candidate, senator, governor, mining king, and, sometimes, bankrupt failure, court-martialed soldier, disgraced businessman.'' This is a subtle portrait of the Fremonts' relationship, one balancing warmth, humor, passion and a realistic sense of maturing love. Alter's characters (including Bret Harte and Lincoln) are believable and very human. Given the overall excellence of this work, one can easily forgive the odd cliche. (June)
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