Monday, May 9, 2016

Eliza Waite by Ashley E. Sweeney

Eliza Waite is the tale of a pioneer woman with unyielding resolve. Her name is a clue to her existence. She’s had to wait to awaken to life emotionally and sexually as well as to valuing herself as a person. She waits to travel, to ply her trade as a baker, and to live an unconventional life that will bring her happiness. The novel begins at the end of the nineteenth century after the death of Eliza’s minister husband and her beloved son on remote Cypress Island in Washington’s San Juan Islands archipelago. Eliza is an intelligent, capable woman – characteristics not appreciated by her husband or most of her neighbors.  She loves reading and once she devours Kate Chopin’s stories and her ground-breaking novel The Awakening, Eliza begins to envision her own awakening. 

Eliza is pursued by a successful local man, yet she can’t make up her mind about him and once more her name comes into play as the act of waiting changes her destiny. She decides to leave the island as Kate Chopin’s words “free, free, free!” resonate within her and she realizes that for the first time in her life, she’s free to make her own decisions without the interference of any man. 

In addition to reading, Eliza finds comfort and purpose in baking. She’s known for her scones, coffeecake, and other baked goods. Eliza’s precious recipe cards provide a way to escape the area and the lack of reasonable prospects there. Soon she’s among the travelers heading north to the Klondike region of Alaska. With less than fifty dollars in her pocket, she opens The Moonstone Café, a bakery, in Skagway where hopeful miners begin embarking on their search for gold. She names her bakery after a moonstone, an agate, she found on the shore of her former island home. When she found the moonstone she put it to her eye and thought about seeing the world through it, about having a different perspective. She saw that its edges were blurred, yet its center was clear.

While most of the characters in the novel are fictitious, several historical figures appear including James Randolph “Soapy” Smith, Frank Reid, E.A. Hegg, and Harriet Pullen. They along with characters Sweeney imagines including prostitutes, con men, miners, and an enterprising madam populate the novel and help Eliza succeed in finding her own clear center and acting according to what she can see within herself

Eliza’s adventures and her awakening are enlivened by real diary entries and authentic pioneer recipes evoking this unique era in American history.  Debut author Sweeney also uses weather to foreshadow Eliza’s moods and to echo the actions in the book. Overcast skies, dappled sunlight, aching cold, and the mists off the bay all help draw the reader into Eliza’s life and her changing story. 

Summing It Up: Read Eliza Waite to enter the gold rush period of American history led by a woman whose appetite and ambition allow her to become whole. You’ll feel the bitter cold settle in the remote setting, taste the freshness of Eliza’s blackberry scones, and cheer for Eliza as she finds love and purpose beyond her imagining.  If you enjoy well-researched historical fiction with plenty of engaging plot twists, you’ll love Eliza Waite. This novel is available as an original paperback and in an electronic version making it one that you can immediately select for your book club.

Rating: 4 stars   
Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Pigeon Pie, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: May 16, 2016 (but it's available now)
Author Website:
What Others are Saying:
“Sweeney’s debut novel is a beautifully written work of historical fiction tracing one woman’s life in the wilds of nineteenth-century America. Readers will be immersed in Eliza’s world, which Sweeney has so authentically and skillfully rendered.”  —Booklist

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