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Belle Cora: A Novel

Belle Cora: A Novel

4.4 12
by Phillip Margulies

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In the home where Arabella Godwin was raised it is forbidden to speak her name, and her picture is turned to the wall. But in the turbulent America of the 1850s, everyone knows her as "Belle Cora," madam of San Francisco's finest bordello. Judges and senators do her bidding; a vicious newspaper editor plots her downfall; a preacher looks at her from across his


In the home where Arabella Godwin was raised it is forbidden to speak her name, and her picture is turned to the wall. But in the turbulent America of the 1850s, everyone knows her as "Belle Cora," madam of San Francisco's finest bordello. Judges and senators do her bidding; a vicious newspaper editor plots her downfall; a preacher looks at her from across his pulpit and tries to forget that once she was his wife. Merchant's daughter, farm girl, prostitute, mother, madam, murderess, avenger, protector—she has worn all these masks: the only thing that never changes is her tireless pursuit of the one man who can see her for who she really is.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
The legendary Belle Cora (1828–1919), one of San Francisco's wealthiest women, begins her memoir after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, revealing secrets and deception in her own life and broader society. After her mother's death from tuberculosis and her father's scandalous suicide, Arabella Godwin and her younger brother, Lewis, are sent by their wealthy grandfather to their aunt's family in upstate New York. Strict rules and grinding poverty are relieved only by Arabella's friendship with Jeptha Talbot, fueling jealousy in her cousin Agnes. Their rivalry for Jeptha's love plus Lewis's penchant for violence dictate many of Arabella's actions. After being raped by her cousin Matthew, Arabella reinvents herself to survive. Whether as high-class prostitute Harriet Knowles in New York City or notorious madam Belle Cora in San Francisco, she profits from associations with wealthy businessmen and prominent politicians. Belle's experiences in places from high society to seamy street life include information on textile mills, gold rush fever, religious revivals, and vigilantism. She finds support from Charles Cora, a charming gambler who fathers her son. VERDICT Making his adult fiction debut, Margulies, an author of YA nonfiction, infuses his novel with historical detail without slowing the pace and makes the reappearances and interactions of characters plausible. The charm and self-invention that served Arabella throughout her life give voice to a story that will captivate historical fiction fans as they follow her exploits during a turbulent era. [See Prepub Alert, 7/29/13.]—Kathy Piehl, Minnesota State Univ. Lib., Mankato
Publishers Weekly
★ 09/30/2013
Margulies, the author of numerous science and history books for young adults, strikes gold in his first novel. Depicted as the deathbed autobiography of Arabella Godwin, aka Belle Cora, the story begins with Arabella’s childhood in 1830s Manhattan. When her parents die, her grandparents send her and her younger brother, Lewis, to an aunt’s farm in New York, where she meets her cousin Agnes, who becomes her lifelong enemy. As they grow up, they vie for the attention of Jeptha Talbot, and Arabella succeeds in securing an engagement to him, but Agnes’s lies force the two apart before they are married. Heartbroken, Belle braves one terrible hardship after another, finally ending up in New York, where, in despair, she becomes a high-level prostitute. When she takes up with Charles Cora, a gambler with the heart of gold, he bankrolls her own establishment. She enjoys being a madam and even bears Cora a son, whom she sends to live with her one kind relative. But then she discovers that Jeptha and Agnes are engaged and planning to go to San Francisco on a trip. Margulies’s writing never falters, and the reader will easily get lost in the world he’s built. Belle’s remarkable story mirrors that of her young country, on the verge of civil war, and her sharp, engaging voice brings her tale to vivid life. (Jan.)
From the Publisher
"A rollicking first novel that tracks an American Moll Flanders on her roller-coaster ride from respectability into quite profitable sin and back again…an enjoyable allegory for the settling of the American West, with plenty of sex and violence along the way… With vivid detail, Margulies depicts a society in which a "ruined" girl has few options… Contemporary readers will, of course, applaud Belle's spunk…We're in the hands of a professional, and a good time of a certain sort is guaranteed."

-The San Francisco Chronicle 

“Margulies strikes gold in his first novel… [his]writing never falters, and the reader will easily get lost in the world he’s built. Belle’s remarkable story mirrors that of her young country, on the verge of civil war, and her sharp, engaging voice brings her tale to vivid life.”
-Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

"The charm and self-invention that served Arabella throughout her life give voice to a story that will captivate historical fiction fans as they follow her exploits during a turbulent era."

- Library Journal

"Belle Cora is historical fiction with a nugget of truth at its core; the heroine is based on a real 19th century madam, and the story is sprinkled with bits of genuine primary sources. The writing is clear and precise, the characters enthralling. It has a bit of a good-girl-gone-bad narrative at the center, but it’s always more about the heroine’s determination to survive by any means than a novel that’s looking for an excuse for its characters to misbehave in a titillating fashion. Above all else, it tells a great story."

"Phillip Margulies has taken the scant known facts about Belle and created a magnificent heroine. Although not always a sympathetic figure, her frankness about her failings and her justification for the artful actions she is often forced to take to guarantee self-preservation make her utterly compelling.
But this is far more than just one woman’s story. It is also an epic detailed exploration of the underbelly of 19th-century America, with all its vice, bigotry, political corruption and religious hypocrisy. The descriptions are rich, the characters well-fleshed, and the novel’s crowning achievement is that it doesn’t try to appease modern sensibilities and presents an honest reflection of this era. A memorable and outstanding work on many levels."
- HistoricalNovelSociety.org

Gripping, sweeping, and tragic, Belle Cora is the story of an extraordinary woman making her way through an extraordinary time.  Part love story, part scandal, part historical epic, Philip Margulies masterfully orchestrates a riveting tale, taking us from the hardboiled streets of New York City to the rich promise of California's goldmines.  At its center is a complex, daring woman, a character I won't soon forget. “
  Anton DiSclafani, New York Times bestselling author of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls

“The past is a foreign country. If, like me, you long to visit 19th  century New York and San Francisco, I can't imagine a better time-travel substitute than Belle Cora. This is a splendid feast of a novel.

-Kurt Andersen, host of Studio 360 and New York Times bestselling author of Heyday  and Turn of the Century

Belle Cora is an enthralling historical drama, the story of a 19th-century Moll Flanders, told with sympathy, feeling, humor, and accuracy.  Phillip Margulies is a superb writer.”

—Kevin Baker, author of The Big Crowd  and Paradise Alley

“Pull away…if you can. Tuck this gorgeous, alive story of America back on your book shelf.  No, don't.  You would deprive yourself of a stunning historical saga, the kind that doesn’t come along every day. You don’t just read Belle Cora. You live it – and you won’t turn your bedside light out for a very long time.”
-Kate Alcott, New York Times bestselling author of The Dressmaker  and The Daring Ladies of Lowell

“Belle Cora is a wonderfully assured novel, a story to lose yourself in, by turns thrilling, witty and poignant. Phillip Margulies has given us a luminous portrayal of an unforgettable woman. You will be utterly seduced by this alluring story.”
Margaret Leroy, New York Times bestselling author of The Soldier’s Wife

Kirkus Reviews
The fictional memoir of an actual madam who ruled Gold Rush–era San Francisco. Except for her extraordinary beauty, Arabella Godwin is no different from any well–brought-up young lady in New York City circa 1837. Then misfortune intervenes: Her mother dies of consumption, her father kills himself, and instead of taking in the new orphans, her wealthy grandfather sends her two older siblings to boarding school and Arabella and youngest brother Lewis to the chilly confines of a hardscrabble farm in the Finger Lakes town of Livy. There, Arabella's Aunt Agatha and Uncle Elihu force the orphans to endure a new life of endless chores and frequent corporal punishment. Gradually, Arabella adjusts with the help of a teenage romance with Jeptha, an angelic looking drunkard's son--whom her scheming cousin Agnes also loves. However, when Jeptha gets religion and Arabella is raped by her brutish cousin Matthew, the resulting pregnancy and induced miscarriage will propel her out of Livy. After a brief stint as a millworker, Arabella returns to New York City to rescue Lewis, who's been stabbed. Eventually, supporting ne'er-do-well Lewis forces Arabella into prostitution--it's the only way to secure large amounts of money quickly. Aided by a newspaperman client, Arabella exposes the corrupt policeman and the ward boss who had persecuted Lewis and cheated her. When she learns that her grandfather and older brothers are searching for her, she avails herself of this last chance to leave "the life" behind, but freeing herself completely will involve murder. Now married to preacher Jeptha, with whom she has been reunited after managing to wrest him away from her rival, Agnes, Arabella heads for California. The couple's mission is to convert San Francisco miners, and since Arabella has been intercepting Agnes' letters, Jeptha remains, so far, ignorant of her fall from grace. Margulies' recreation of Arabella's milieu and astute observations of the hypocritical sexual mores of a bygone time lend resonance to this episodic epic. A convincing melodrama in which the victim takes charge.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Random House
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3 MB

Read an Excerpt

There is a story about a girl who took the wrong path, and rues it all her life. She is too trusting. She is too passionate. The result: an error than can’t be corrected, a stain that can’t be washed out. Back on the old homestead where she grew up, no one is permitted to speak her name, and her picture is turned to the wall.

Gentlemen love this story, so when any girl in a house of mine lacked some version of it I would help her to make one up. I’d take her to a good restaurant at a quiet time of day, order something very expensive, and tell her, “You were an Ohio farm girl, and to help your folks out with the bank loan you went to work in a mill. The mill agent’s son noticed you. He was very handsome. That was your downfall.”

Or I’d begin, “You’re from a fine old Baltimore family. Your father was a good man, except he was a bit reckless: he gambled; he was killed in a duel.”

And so on. There was a time when I had three girls declaring in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence that they were the daughters of clergymen.

Why it was useful to say these things, I can only guess. God knows it wasn’t to evoke pity. We weren’t beggars, and the customers weren’t softhearted. The important thing was that it worked. We knew from experience that these men paid more for the attention of a girl wrapped in the fiction that she had not chosen this life—she was unlucky, meant for something better, but here to enjoy thanks to her misfortune.

Sometimes we lied even though the truth was perfect. The pretty creature would run a fingertip along the rim of her glass and tell me, “I was a farm girl, but in Indiana,” or “There was a boss’s son, and a child, it did die, I did try to kill myself.” I’d inquire, “Do you ever tell them that?” She’d answer, “No.” I’d say, “Of course not: it’s too personal. But since it resembles what they want to hear, tell them something else along those lines. That way everyone’s happy.”

The truth was withheld only because so much else had to be forfeited. My case was like that. I was the country girl. And before that, I was the rich girl.

to begin with the first story, I was born in 1828, into a family of pious Yankee merchants. My grandfather, a silk importer, had come to New York from Massachusetts fifteen years earlier and had prospered. He owned what was for several years the tallest building in New York City. My father was his chief clerk. My mother was an invalid, and we prayed every day that she would live and knew that she would die.

Our home was in Bowling Green, a fashionable New York City neighborhood a little past its prime. Its fine three-story buildings, with their pitched roofs and neat rows of dormer windows and wrought-iron fences, were being refashioned to live second lives as boarding houses, or being torn down entirely and replaced with hotels. I think it is because I was born there that the world has always felt old to me. The United States was young. Newspapers constantly reminded us of that. But in Bowling Green things showed signs of long use. I remember when a flood on the second floor of our house damaged a wall of the sitting room on the floor below, revealing many old layers of wallpaper, in quaint patterns, and my father told me that they had been pasted to the walls by the people who had been here before us, and deeper layers had been put there by the people who were here still earlier. How remarkable: there had been other families, surrounded by fleurs-de-lis on yellow, before that by pussy-willow twigs on green, and so on, layer on layer, back and back. Digging in the courtyard, I would find children’s lost whip tops and penny dolls. Who were these children? Where were they now?

One still saw pigs in the streets, and when I look back now, their freedom to roam the nation’s leading commercial city seems like proof that the United States was only half civilized; but I didn’t think so, since I was a child, with no basis for comparison. So far as I knew, there had always been pigs on Broadway, along with carriages and omnibuses. It had all been there before me, in the era of fleurs-de-lis, in the era of pussy willow’s, forever. And if new houses were rising on new streets to the north, that, too, had been going on for ages, and no one knew how much longer it would be permitted to continue. The world would end soon, according to several upstate New York ministers.

One of my earliest memories is of the time my mother lost me on the docks; she used to make a story of this episode, stuffed with morally fortifying lessons, like all her stories, so that I remember some of it from her point of view. She left my brother Lewis in the care of the hired girl and took me to Pearl Street. It was an ambitious journey: for months, the most she had been able to manage was a trembling descent of the stairs and a brief constitutional in the park across the street, with frequent rests. Now she was feeling better, glad to be out again, strong again—maybe all better, cured by some miracle?—and she walked, testing herself, one step and then another, with a fierce secret joy, gripping my hand, all the way to the docks.

Since it was so long ago, I must explain that she was misbehaving—women of her class were not supposed to go to the waterfront, certainly not on foot—but my mother wished to investigate a dry-goods store known for its quality and reasonable prices. She did it with the pretext of visiting my father at his place of business. (As she explained later, she overreached herself, stepping out of her sphere, and she was punished for it.) We bought hot roasted peanuts from a pushcart. While she was talking to a clerk, I wandered out of the store and crossed the street to watch some children of the poor who lay facedown on the edge of the dock. They were holding a yard of cheap cloth beneath the water. I remember that the reflections of pilings, ropes, and masts wriggled like worms, with the children’s faces seemingly contained in the cloth. Abruptly the picture disintegrated; the boys’ arms were webbed with the river’s slime, the cloth dripped, tiny fish writhed. I turned to speak to my mother; she wasn’t there. I didn’t know which of those many doors I’d come out of and had no idea how to find it.

To my left were the wooden ships, a bewildering thicket of masts, with vines of ropes and leaves of reefed sail, pigeons sitting on the yardarms, bowsprits drawing undulating lines of shadow on the cobblestones. To my right were three- and four-story buildings, many signs, doors and awnings—horses, wagons, dogs fighting over shreds of offal, men pushing wheelbarrows, heaving casks, spitting in doorways. I ran through all that in elemental terror, shouting “Mama! Mama!” until, with a sudden pressure beneath my arms, a man with brown teeth and rum breath, in a coarse-woven dirty shirt and pants with suspenders picked me up. He held me high, walking, while I kicked at his head. “Who lost a babe? Lost! One babe!” A little later: “What am I bid for this fine babe?”

“That’s my child! Thank heavens—oh, thank you, thank you,” cried my mother, who moments before had been picturing my body fished lifeless out of the water, and I was handed down to her so quickly it was almost falling. Her grip, much weaker than the rough man’s, was tighter than usual for her. I could hear her quick heartbeat and wheezes—she had been running—and I did not feel entirely out of danger yet. I sensed her fear of this man, the kind of man our family considered a good object for home missionary work. When other prosperous merchants were rewarding themselves with a convivial midday libation or the comforts of home, my grandfather, accompanied by my father or one of his clerks, was busy spreading the word of God, as they believed all serious Christians should do, whatever their regular professions. In combed black hats and immaculate somber suits, they patrolled the waterfront, distributing Bibles—gripping calloused hands, saying, “Take this, sir, and may God bless you,” while peering into the eyes of sailors and dockers unaccountably not reached by the Gospel after eighteen hundred years.

The next part I remember is walking up a flight of wooden stairs to the second floor of my father’s workplace, which was lit partly by gaslight and partly by slanting shafts of sun from the big windows. Junior clerks sat on high stools before inclined desks, scratching out lists and letters, while my father watched from a high platform that afforded him a godlike view of their labors. When he greeted my mother, the more astute clerks removed their short-brimmed high black hats, and the others followed the example. He took me from my mother, kissed me, handed me back. He said that he was happy that she was feeling stronger, what a surprise, and she must never do it again, and then he turned to one of the clerks and told him to stop what he was doing to take us home in a company wagon.

When we were halfway down the steps, my mother apologized to the clerk and said that she must stop to rest. She sat down on the steps. I sat beside her. The clerk stood behind us, thinking God knows what. She coughed: a familiar sound. Whenever I played at being a mama, at a certain point I would interrupt my pretended chore to rest, saying, “Mercy.” I would cough, with a reflective, listening, diagnostic expression, as if the cough contained a message, and put a hand on my chest or side. Then, grinding my teeth and wincing, I’d get up and return to my imaginary work.

Often I would tell my dolls to hurry up and learn to be good, since I would not always be there to teach them.

later in life, whenever i talked about my mother I would begin to sob. There wouldn’t be any buildup—nothing at all—then the tears. Those who knew me as a hard woman would find it distasteful. Who could blame them? How could they understand?

She had fine flaxen hair, which she kept in a severe bun under a plain bonnet. She was small and, in my early memories, pretty, with a graceful figure. (Not later; the progress of the illness made her delicate beauty shrivel.) Her nose was straight and thin; her eyes were long-lashed and bright, her lips bow-shaped; her chin was small. Her complexion was pale, except when she was feverish, at which times the black-and-white hues of her clothing contrasted with a hectic, ruddy, deceptively healthy-looking glow.

Slicing apples, sewing, polishing the candlesticks, or trimming the lamps (four duties she said were permissible for ladies), she would remark, “The Lord may take me early. Then I will be sorry not to be here with you and your brothers, but, on the other hand, I will be very glad to again see my own mother and my grandfather and my aunt”—all dead of consumption—“and of course I expect to meet you in your time. That is why you must do your duty and love God.”

We believed that completely and literally. We would be reunited in heaven. That was our plan, as practical to us as “Let’s meet at sundown in front of the clock tower.”

Growing tired, she would rest, while I went on sewing or polishing. She’d tell me how helpful I was—what would she do without me? She would cough, intending it to be a small, cautious throat-clearing cough. The cough would have bigger ideas and go on and on, while she ran to a pail, and she would spit and study her sputum. Was it white or yellow or green? Or red—the most feared color.

In retrospect—now that “consumption” is “tuberculosis” and the diligent Dr. Koch has traced it to a microscopic bacillus—it is clear that insufficient efforts were made to save my mother’s life. Even based on the knowledge then available to physicians, everything possible was not done. It never was when the sufferer was a woman. Male consumptives made survival their life’s work. They went on long sea voyages. They traveled to better climes. They changed careers, shunned brain work, and sought to restore their health with vigorous labor out of doors. These measures were considered impractical for women. How could they change careers, when motherhood was their true occupation, without which their lives were empty? How could a sick woman contend with the thousand inconveniences of travel, or bear to be separated from dear friends and relations? Women were too good to do the selfish things that might have preserved them, so they weren’t told to. Only seldom did doctors even advise a consumptive woman to refrain from childbearing, although they knew that each pregnancy would shorten her life.

My mother believed ardently in what was then considered to be the modern view of woman’s nature—it was a relatively new idea, that women were finer than men—and if any doctor had suggested that she ought to leave her family or avoid childbirth she would have found another doctor. She had five of us: Robert, Edward, Frank, me, and, last of all, Lewis. She was found to be in the second stage of consumption soon after Edward, and each subsequent birth resulted in a permanent worsening of her condition.

Within these limits, it was her duty to improve. On Dr. Boyle’s advice, she ate bland foods: wheat breads, apples, boiled rice, boiled beef. She took opium to relieve the pain and to reduce the severity of her coughs. She took calomel to relieve the constipation caused by the opium. When she was well enough, she walked or went riding. She relieved her swellings with blisters and poultices, which she became expert at preparing for anyone who wanted them, and she bled herself with leeches, the descendants of a little family of them imported from Europe, which she bred and raised at home. The leeches mated and bore their young in pond water that she kept in a porcelain tub in her bedroom. Her blood was their only food.

She belonged to a sewing circle consisting of pious Congregationalist women with consumption, whom she had come to know at church or through the recommendation of her doctors. She went to their houses; they came to ours. Before I was seven, I attended the funerals of three of these ladies. They had sat facing each other, plying their needles, trading medical details they had learned as dutiful invalids. One by one they were put in boxes, stored in the ground, and replaced by others in earlier phases of the process.

All of these doomed women had children whom they were anxious to infuse with a full course of moral instruction in the little time that might remain. Every incident was an occasion for a lesson about piety, work, or self-effacement. Never take the best chair when someone older is present, or speak of hating things or people, or say you do not love what is given to you. Never leave chairs out of place.

Meet the Author

PHILLIP MARGULIES is the author and editor of many books on science, politics and history for young adults. He has won two New York Foundation for the Arts fellowships. He lives in New York City with his wife and two children.

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Belle Cora: A Novel 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An interesting and predictable story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
[ I received this book free from the publisher through GoodReads/ First Reads . I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising] This is one of my Top Ten books of 2014. And, as much as I was sure it is fiction, it is actually based on a true "Madame" in San Francisco, although Margulies is quick to amend he made up her backstory. "I have treated a historical figure as if she were a product of my imagination, providing her with a childhood, youth, family, husbands, lovers and death that are in conflict with the handful of kniwn facts about Belle Cora. On the other hand, the major public events of the novel...are all true..." ( p.591). Arabella Godwin, born in NYC of a well-to-do family, is shuttled with her youngest brother Lewis to Western NY when her parents die. She never forgives her grandparents for this. Going from riches to rags, she grows up on a hardscrabble farm until she's grown, when she returns to the City to help her brother. Circumstances pile one on another and she becomes the owner of a high class brothel where she rubs elbows with the movers and shakers. After a while she has a child who she chooses to give up to her aunt for the child's sake. Marrying her childhood sweetheart, they travel to San Francisco City during the Gold Rush days where Jeptha is to be a missionary to the locals. With the loss of a young boy while on the boat, his faith is shattered. Their marriage is tested time and time again and Jeptha ends the marriage. Belle restablishes herself as a courtisan soon running one of the best houses in San Fransisco. The story starts early on the day of the 1906 San Fransisco Earthquake, and mostly told as reflections of Arabella's life. It takes the reader through early expansion, through beyond the Civil War; through her marriages and her reinventions as a single respected Madame, an entrepanuer, a murderess, a philanthropist and a protector. This book is highly readable and highly recommended
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
BoundtoRead More than 1 year ago
This engrossing historical fiction pulled me in from the first page. On turning that last page, I immediately found myself looking back on the book as a whole - reminiscing, so to speak, on Bell Cora's whole life. Could not put this book down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
At 700 pages, I thought this would last awhile......wrong! I could not put down this page turner! Starting with Belle's childhood and continuing through the many decades of her life, the story is beautifully written and all the loose ends tied up. Belle's life is fascinating, tragic, and mesmerizng. No sequels to wait for (yay) this womans story stands alone. Not your run of the mill formula novel. A must read to enjoy, remember, and read again when the details in your memory dull a bit. Belle is the Scarlett O'Hara of her profession.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
CAJ45 More than 1 year ago
I'm amazed how well this story was woven that I couldn't not become a part of as I read. Belle came alive. I truly felt that her life could have happened. It's always amazes me when I come a crossed a book that makes me wonder if a book has based its main character on someone in real life. This book did that I actually looked up all of Belle's names to see if she was person outside of the book. Her life and trails and all that she overcame just pulled me into her story. I became the bystander in the book able to see and feel everything. I know I wouldn't have survived as well as Belle did nor do I think I would have had the outcome that she did. She was a strong individual and did what she had to do to survive the hand she was dealt. She's an amazing woman in a wonderful book. I'm so glad that I got to read this! ARC courtesy of Doubleday Books via Netgalley
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
MaureenST More than 1 year ago
Talk about living history, as soon as you pick up this book you are walking in Arabella's shoes. There were many times when I was wanting to help this girl/woman. Such tragedy she suffered as a young girl, born with the preverbal silver spoon, and then having it all gone. Rejection by Grandparents, broke my heart. This book has it all, lots of historical times...walking San Francisco, and living in the moments. We even experience of the Civil War, and losses. Travel around 1800's New York City. Can't say I agree with her profession, and her recruiting, but the story of what made her who she was is excellent. If you are looking for a story of the raw life in California...Gold Rush time, this is for you. It is a rather long book, but very rich. Enjoy! I received this book through the publisher Doubleday, and Edleweiss, and was not required to give a positive review.