D.M. Harrison, you’ll be delighted and probably surprised to learn, is an English lady who loves to write westerns. She’s got quite a string of them to her credit, one of which, The Buffalo Soldier, I reviewed in these pages some time back.
Her latest is called Going to See the Elephant, the common gold rush expression folks used to express their excitement (or trepidation) about heading to see what exotic or unknown adventures waited on the other side of those vast plains and high mountains. The expression has a long and murky history, but as nonsensical as it sounds, it was widely shared among the community of adventurers daring enough to take the trail from the familiar to the mysterious beyond.
Seventeen-year-old Rose Mahoney has no intention of heading out, but she’s forced off her family farm by a combination of chicanery and brutality and has no choice but to take her 14-year-opld brother, Toby, and make the trek. The story of how she uses her courage, brains, and beauty to make her way and overcome her numerous mistakes–some of them nearly fatal–makes for an entertaining and exciting read. Of equal interest to me is that her destination–a place called Hangtown in the California Sierra foothills–is also a major location in my duo of western-located novels, The Maxwell Vendetta and The Second Vendetta. My stories take place a half-century later, after some chamber of commerce types decided that Hangtown was bad for business and changed it to Placerville. But Elephant brings Rose and Toby into Hangtown on the cusp of its transformation from a raw and violent hole of liquor and guns into a civilized community, and they’re poised to help with the transformation.
It’s hard to make an original story out of the well-traveled literary trail about the “overlanders,” but Harrison does a nifty job with her ending, making it seem both surprising and inevitable. If you’re looking for a delightful story about strong women, handsome men, and a true-to-life picture of the western frontier, Going to See The Elephant is the place for you.