cover image Railroad Schemes

Railroad Schemes

Cecelia Holland. Forge, $23.95 (304pp) ISBN 978-0-312-86405-7

The only disappointing element of Holland's (Bear Flag) new historical novel is its pedestrian title. In every other respect--fully realized characters, suspenseful plot, well-integrated historical details and vibrant local color--it is, as usual, an outstanding example of the genre. Set in 1850s California as the transcontinental railroad is gobbling up land near Los Angeles, the absorbing narrative pits a charismatic bank robber, King Callahan, against his one-armed nemesis, a Southern Pacific Railroad detective called Brand. King's robbery of a stagecoach, during which he humiliates Brand, locks them in enmity; 15-year-old orphan Lily Viner is the innocent catalyst who influences their fates. The paradox for Lily--and for the reader--is that King is the man who wins her--and our--sympathy; the hard-boiled outlaw is rendered vulnerable by the spirited, courageous teenager, for poignant reasons that gradually come to light. King vows to take care of Lily and to marry the indomitable Mexican widow Serafa, and he's even willing to give up a life of crime to protect them both. Meanwhile, however, he is embroiled in the machinations of another class of robbers--the bankers and real estate men who stand to profit from the railroad and who engage in every kind of chicanery to make sure no one gets in their way. Impetuous, unsophisticated Lily is a wonderful creation; her typically adolescent confusion and her love of reading are endearing characteristics. Plenty of rough and tumble action, a fine evocation of the various ethnic and social classes who settled the West and the punch of an ironic ending add up to irresistible storytelling. (Nov.)