I read this to get a taste of Gist's reading, in preparation for the release of Gist's Maid to Match. I haven't read much Christian fiction of any sort, and I'm leery of both the "fire and brimstone for the unbelievers" writers and the "good, clean Christian world of the '50s-that-never-was" writers. I haven't been to church since I was a child - organized religion has never really appealed to me, and I've never felt that "letting God into my life" would necessarily help me be a better person. I'm a very secular kind of girl and have never felt the lack of religion in my life, beyond the social aspects of it.
So, I'm more than likely not Gist's target audience. While Gist's characters occasionally thought about and did things that I couldn't really relate to, for the most part even I enjoyed this book, and I look forward to reading Maid to Match. Actually, I think I might try out the rest of Gist's stuff, too. She has a nice sense of humor, and I liked that the Christian aspects of her book weren't black-and-white - in fact, one of the main conflicts of the book involved the main character trying to reconcile her black-and-white view of what is Christian and moral with the gray area that is the life she has found herself in.
Rachel Van Buren, her fifteen-year-old sister Lissa, and her fourteen-year-old brother Michael arrive in San Francisco, newly orphaned and nearly penniless, shocked to find that the bright, gold-filled future their father expected them to find doesn't exist, at least not without many months of desperate, back-breaking work. Nineteenth-century San Francisco is a decadent and lawless place, where everyone has gold fever and it's not uncommon for those who've found gold to gamble it away on the chance that they might get even richer. Nineteenth-century San Francisco is also a hideously expensive place. However, Rachel manages to arrange a place for her and her brother and sister to stay - it's either that, or marry someone. Although any number of men in San Francisco would be happy to marry a "sunbonnet woman" (a respectable woman), Rachel would rather not have to marry someone just so that she and her family can have a place to stay.
The place they end up staying at is a tiny, barely adequate shack owned by Johnnie Parker, the owner of the City Hotel, a saloon/hotel. Eventually, Rachel also becomes Johnnie's cook and takes charge of cleaning the City Hotel - however, while she does these things, she doesn't want to be around prostitutes (which, to her mind, also includes former prostitutes) and gambling. Rachel's high and mighty behavior annoys Johnnie a bit. It also annoys her sister Lissa, who blossoms like crazy under the admiring eyes of the town's men. In Lissa's view, Rachel is being hypocritical: even as Rachel rails against Lissa's decision to make money by singing for the men and giving them shaves (a big no-no for a young, unmarried woman), Rachel works for a man who owns a saloon and even begins to fall for him.
For Rachel, it's an uphill battle, keeping her siblings on the straight and narrow. Both Michael and Lissa go to wild parties, at which no respectable person should ever be seen. Lissa can't stand the thought of doing the back-breaking work that's required in order to live the kind of life Rachel feels is right and moral. Lissa's shocking shaving business eventually leads her to fall in love with Mr. Sumner, a womanizing snake of a man. Rachel doesn't handle things well, and Lissa ends up willingly losing her virginity to Sumner, happily accepting his promise that they will someday be married, maybe. Neither Rachel nor Johnnie believes a word Sumner says, and Rachel, brought to her breaking point, even threatens Sumner with a gun. None of it does any good, however, and Lissa continues to live in sin with Sumner, cutting her ties with Rachel.
By now, Rachel has sunk a lot of her money into opening a new restaurant business, in an attempt to live a life that doesn't depend upon money and living quarters provided by a saloon owner. Rachel and Johnnie have grown much closer, making Rachel feel even more guilty - although Lissa incorrectly believes that her relationship with Sumner is the same as Rachel's relationship with Johnnie (Lissa and Sumner have had sex with only a vague promise of marriage, while Rachel and Johnnie have only kissed), Rachel is worried that, if she isn't careful, things will go farther with Johnnie than she wishes them to. Rachel, an avid insect collector with a fondness for trees, still takes cares of the trees and the place Johnnie hopes one day to turn into a pleasure garden. For a time, she had the possibility of choosing a young naturalist over Johnnie. She chose to reject the naturalist, but she doesn't want to be Johnnie's wife unless he quits being a saloon owner or profiting from saloons in any way.
Rachel's own restaurant is a morally black-and-white place, as well. A sign at her door states flatly that she refuses to serve prostitutes, or even have prostitutes at her establishment. This causes Rachel some doubt when she realizes that Lissa has decided that this means she can't visit Rachel's restaurant, either. When a woman arrives in town who reveals herself to be Sumner's wife, Lissa breaks down even further and tries to kill herself. She hates Rachel's "no prostitutes" rule, and she refuses to stay with Rachel, even though the situation with Sumner has become so difficult.
Rachel sees less and less of Johnnie, Michael, and Lissa, because of her insistence at living by the black-and-white rules of behavior instilled in her by her mother when she was a child. Michael begins renting a table at Johnnie's saloon, making a lot of money. Lissa lives like a proud, wild thing, staying with Sumner even though she knows he's already married. Johnnie refuses to sell his saloon, because that is what he's sunk most of his money into. Even the nice little life Rachel has made at her restaurant seems to fall apart at the seams when Lissa tells Rachel what everyone in town has always known, that one of her employees used to be a prostitute.
Rachel doesn't have much time to consider this new information before San Francisco is turned into a bonfire. Some people help each other, because it's the right thing to do, while other people have the gall to charge money or gold for their assistance. Rachel finds herself having to bend her rigid standards when Lissa offers her and Sumner's home as a place for all those who are badly wounded to recover. She has to bend those standards even further when she must work side by side with Lissa's prostitute friends, helping the wounded. Now that Rachel finally talks to these women, she learns that none of them turned to prostitution willingly - they had come west trying to find better lives and had no other way to earn money.
Prior to the fire, Johnnie had begun to rethink being a saloon owner. It wasn't just that he wanted to marry Rachel - it was also getting to the point that he couldn't condone what he could see his business was doing to people, a feeling that came to a head when a man shot himself after losing everything he had gambling. When Johnnie proposes to her, Rachel finally agrees to marry him - Johnnie hasn't told her all the conclusions he's come to, it's just that Rachel decides to simply trust that he will do what's right when he decides who to lease his property to. What he decides is right may not be what she thinks is right, but Rachel decides that's ok. One thing she does want, however, is for Johnnie to rebuild her restaurant, so that there's a safe place for her wards to work - she wants to open a House of Refuge, where girls who don't want to be prostitutes anymore can live while they try to rebuild their lives. Johnnie and Rachel marry, a mostly happy affair (Lissa doesn't show up).
A year later, Rachel occasionally sees Lissa and makes it clear that there's a place for her to come home to if she ever wants to leave Sumner. Rachel puts up with Sumner, who still doesn't seem to care what he's doing to both Lissa and his wife. When a lost-looking and penniless Miss Eldridge arrives, escorted by Michael (who seems to be a bit smitten by her), she finds support in the House of Refuge.
Most of the time, I liked Rachel, but her black-and-white view of the world drove me batty. You either were a prostitute for life, or you were lily white, nothing in between.
I could understand why Lissa saw her as a hypocrite. At every new development, Rachel seemed to be redefining the way things worked in order to suit her. If she lived purely by the standards she set for herself, there would not have been a single job she could have taken when they first arrived in San Francisco. She justified cleaning and cooking in Johnnie's saloon by defining the saloon only as a hotel during her working hours, and by saying that she refused to be around Carmelita, a former prostitute who still dressed provocatively in order to distract gamblers into losing more money. Technically, the only thing she did during those early days that truly fit her high standards was the work she did caring for Johnnie's trees. Had she really wanted to live a perfectly moral life, she would have married the naturalist.
However, that doesn't mean Lissa's behavior didn't drive me crazy, too. What Lissa didn't seem to realize was that the only thing that saved her and Rachel from being treated like common prostitutes was their status as "sunbonnet women." Being a sunbonnet woman meant that some things would be more difficult - she and Rachel would have had to work much harder to earn a living. However, by choosing not to act like a sunbonnet woman, she was opening herself up to a life where, if Sumner chose to, he could have basically acted as her pimp, sharing her with anyone willing to pay. The thing that made him despicable was the joking he did shortly after he and Lissa first slept together, telling Johnnie that he might share her with him if he wished. Gist later tries to make it seem that Sumner may actually be in love with Lissa, but I doubt it. Lissa was an idiot, a fifteen-year-old idiot who had a temper tantrum, smacking Rachel when she had the gall to remind her that Sumner hadn't kept the marriage vows he made to his wife, so how could he be expected to keep any promises to Lissa?
In the end, what it came down to was Rachel remembering that Jesus consorted with and forgave lots of prostitutes, and her realization that it's not her job to set the moral standards for everyone - all of that's between individuals and God. All that mortals like her can do is try to give people who want to turn their lives around a place they can go to and people who will help and support them. I can accept that.
The historical aspects of this book were very interesting - this is not a period of time I've read a lot about. I knew a bit about the gold rush, but I didn't know about the specifics or what life was like - Gist made that seem very real.
As far as the humor goes, that starts at the very beginning, with the first line: "This street is impassable, not even jackassable," which was apparently a real street sign. I'm sure Gist's research was fascinating. There was less and less humor as the book went on and people's lives started to fall apart, but I did like those early humorous bits.
Overall, I liked this book enough that I'd read something else by Gist, and I certainly plan on reading Maid to Match.
As I said earlier in this post, I don't read a lot of Christian fiction, period, so this read-alike list was really had for me to put together. Those who do read a lot of Christian fiction, feel free to add to this list. Those just looking for read-alikes for this book, take this list with a grain of salt. That said, although coming up with this list was hard (only 3 recommendations, and one of them isn't even Christian fiction!), I think I may be adding Karen Witemeyer's book to my TBR list - it sounds kind of fun.
- The Fire Rose (book) by Mercedes Lackey - This is NOT Christian fiction, but the historical and romantic aspects may appeal to those who liked Gist's book - if I remember correctly, the two main characters never do more than kiss, although one of the book's villains is a vicious man who breaks girls sold into prostitution. So, warning given, on to the brief description. After her father dies, Rose Hawkins, a young scholar, finds herself in dire financial straits. When she is offered a position as a governess for the children of Jason Cameron, a wealthy rail baron in San Francisco, she feels she has little choice but to accept. However, Cameron has no children and doesn't need a governess. He's actually an Elemental Master whose specialty is Fire. He needs Rose's help to undo a spell that transformed his appearance and forced him to become a recluse. With an old enemy looking for any exploitable weakness, Cameron must work quickly.
- Bamboo and Lace (book) by Lori Wick - This is a Christian romance, just not a historical Christian romance. Raised in a remote Asian village by her missionary father, 24-year-old Lily is amazed by Hawaii when she goes there to visit her brother. When her brother is called away on urgent business, Lily is left in the care of his best friend Gabe and Gabe's family. When Lily begins to fall in love with Gabe, she finds herself faced with a choice between true love and the promise she made not to shame her father. This might be a good one for those who liked reading about Rachel's inner turmoil over her growing love for Johnnie and everything she'd been taught about the proper way a lady should behave.
- A Tailor-Made Bride (book) by Karen Witemeyer - This is another Christian romance (or maybe just fiction, but I'm guessing it's romance). Hannah Richards opens up her dress shop in 1881 Coventry, Texas, hoping to help women add beauty to their lives. Livery owner Jericho Tucker takes one look at her place and is convinced that all she's doing is leading women astray by appealing to their vanity. Despite their clashes over the fine line between beauty and vanity, Hannah and J.T. are both basically good people. As they find themselves growing closer, can the two figure out how to overcome their differences? J.T. and Hannah remind me a bit of Rachel and Johnnie. Those who'd like another Christian historical romance might want to try this.