Embracing the Elephant
This circuitous novel opens in 1848, as 11-year-old Guine boards an East Coast ship bound for San Francisco to join her widowed father. It's an arduous journey for Guine and may prove slow going for readers: Beninger delves into minutiae of life at sea and Guine's drawn-out interactions with passengers and crew. The pace quickens during an action-filled stop in Rio de Janeiro and the ship's treacherous rounding of Cape Horn, but the core adventure begins more than one-third of the way through the novel, when Guine is reunited with her father in California. The Gold Rush has begun, and he reluctantly agrees to let her accompany him to the Sierra Nevada, where he has staked a claim. Beninger provides a persuasive account of the rigors of living in a mining town fraught with greed, illness, racial tension, and violence (there's a rape, a hanging, and a throat slitting). Guine's deepening relationship with her father, as well as flashbacks to her more placid life in Boston, provide tender underpinnings for this historically evocative story.