We are not quite halfway through the year, but I can confidently say that Eliza Waite will easily be in my top 10 books of the year for 2016. The writing is so stark and beautiful, the story so compelling. I couldn’t put this book down, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it when I finished reading.
Author Ashley Sweeney tells the story of Eliza Waite, a woman forging her own life at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries in the American West. Eliza was born into a wealthy, but emotionally cold family in Columbia, Missouri. After her family casts her out, she travels west to an island off the coast of Washington where her husband has been assigned as pastor to the local church. When her husband and son die, Eliza must find the courage to strike out on her own.
This book is about more than a woman surviving in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, it is about finding and loving yourself. It is about surviving deep loss. It is about acceptance. It is about determination. I found myself grieving with Eliza and rooting for her to make it in an inhospitable environment. I also wondered if I would be strong enough to survive those consequences, and even if I could succeed in my own life. I came away believing that yes, I can survive and succeed. There was nothing superhuman about Eliza. She just believed in herself and kept working. She didn’t give up. And slowly, she started loving and believing in herself.
Sweeney doesn’t romanticize the period or the setting. She vividly brings to life the hardships and the icy cold of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska during the Gold Rush. It is a hard life, especially in contrast with Eliza’s privileged childhood. But she adapts and eventually thrives. The terrain is treacherous, but the mountains and the Northern lights are beautiful. The work is hard, but there is also opportunity. The people can be cruel, but there are also kindred spirits.
Lastly, I thoroughly enjoyed the regular recipes included in the narrative. Eliza finds refuge in baking and opens her own bakery once she reaches Alaska. The recipes that the author includes are authentic to the period. I loved the approximate measurements of ingredients. I use a kitchen full of equipment when I bake: kitchen scales, measuring spoons, measuring cups, mixers, and modern ovens. Eliza used the bare essentials and a wood burning oven. THAT is an expert baker. I am a mere amateur by comparison.
I admit I am a huge fan of historical fiction, but I believe this book will appeal to a wide range of readers. This book immerses you in the time and the place. It keeps you thinking about it, even when you are done.
Book: Eliza Waite
Author: Ashley Sweeney
Publisher: She Writes Press
Date Published: May 16, 2016
Source: Net Galley