Written by Denise Weimer
Reviewed by Paul H. Yarbrough
Billed on the cover as Book One of the Georgia Gold Trilogy, Sautee Shadows is a historical novel about the South during the mid-1800s.
Weimer’s Georgia roots give her credibility as to understanding what Southern life was all about during that era — an agrarian society with a respect for the land and its beauty. She seems to grasp the order and effort of planting and harvesting and marketing and trading in the agrarian South. And she knows the history of the slave issue.
It is clear in the treatment of her story that Weimer explores three pillars of the novel: Georgia, the South, and history. Mostly set in northeast Georgia, where the Chattahoochee River rises and gold had been discovered, many Georgians will recognize references to the Sautee Valley and Clarkesville. As one family in the novel has substantial shipping interests, scenes are diverted at times to Savannah, a locale familiar to many outside Georgia.
Three of the four families are Southern: Calhoun, Ellis, and Rousseau. The fourth, Randall, has roots in New York. Richard Randall marries Eva Ellis and together have a son, Jack, who is a central character and struggles with his North/South identity. Eva dies of the fever early in the novel and Richard soon marries Sunny Calhoun (the Calhouns and Rousseaus are related by siblings). Together they give Jack half brothers and sisters, though a new family for Jack is but another struggle for him.
The gold in the subtitle is a tease in this opening third of the saga and its significance is alluded to through the early introduction of Michael Franklin who, against his family wishes, marries a Cherokee woman, Kawani. They have a “half-breed” daughter Mahala. Michael works a gold claim belonging to Rex Clarke (the story’s lout) and when Michael is found murdered shortly before Mahala’s birth, suspicions abound due to possible missing gold as Clarke had often made accusations concerning Michael’s accounting.
Not enough that Mahala’s father was murdered just prior to her birth, her mother , Kawani, dies from childbirth complications only shortly thereafter. Friends take Mahala in and raise her, but as Kawani reaches the age of twelve her grandmother, Martha Franklin, takes action to bring Mahala to live with her, though her “half-breed” status is not accepted by all. At first resistant, Mahala, becomes attached to town life and the excitement surrounding it, even to the extent of rejecting her Cherokee friend Clay’s proposal of marriage. Her rejection drives him to Oklahoma where the Cherokees had been forced to relocate early in the book. This is one of the many emotional tugs on Mahala throughout the story, though the greatest one may be of her father’s murder.
The Rousseaus and Calhouns are related by two sisters, Henrietta and Odelle, and Weimer’s treatment of cousins marrying in this historical period is well understood. The reader gets the feeling that these two related families, while prominent in Sautee Shadows, are setting the stage for far more exposure in part two.
Carolyn Calhoun becomes torn between Dylan Rousseau, off to divinity school, and his brother Devereaux, off to military school. The reader won’t have to wait until part two to find out which one she gives her hand to. But he will have to wait to find out why?
Great historical novels such as Gone with the Wind and None Shall Look Back usually become classics with time. There are two parts remaining for The Gold Trilogy, and good luck to Weimer in developing a classic. Personally I am looking forward to part two, The Crimson Bloom.