Huck Finn Goes West might have been a good alternative title for this one, although our hero and primary narrator, young Jamie McPheeters of St. Louis, fourteen years old at the start of his journey to the gold fields of California, seems to predate the period when Huck and Tom were painting fences together. But like those two young miscreants, Jamie is incorrigible and utterly boyish in his understanding of the world.
His father, a ne'er-do-well doctor who studied medicine in Scotland as a youth, when he would have preferred to be a smuggler (following the popular local trade in his native village), is also an inveterate drinker and gambler who cannot keep his finances in order. Dr. Sardius McPheeters lives in a kind of fantasy world, forever chasing the next "Opportunity", even as his creditors are hammering at the door. The newly discovered gold fields of California seem to promise him a way out of his collapsing financial condition and damaged reputation and he soon determines to head west where he's confident gold awaits him. He pulls his similarly ne'er-do-well son along, against his wife's wishes, and leaves her and their daughter alone to face the financial hounds baying at the gate as they head off, by steamboat, to join the nearest wagon train west.
Jamie, it turns out, is an astute if immature observer and soon stumbles into some adventures of his own making the acquaintance along the way of a couple of colorful rogues who will continue to plague the boy as he heads west. The novel is constructed as Jamie's narrative of what happened to him and his father on the way to California, intermixing Jamie's own often skewed recollections with a series of letters and journal entries from the old man. The juxtaposition of their often very different viewpoints, combined with Jamie's own frequent miscues about the adult world in which he is now adrift, make for some very funny moments. And, of course, there are the numerous coincidental encounters that characterize this kind of picaresque tale -- the same people turning up, in episode after episode, and Jamie frequently too self-absorbed in his boyish way to notice what should be plain to him (and is plain to the reader) and which would have kept him and his pa, and the friends they gradually accumulate, out of a great deal of trouble. But then where would the story be?
Sometimes Jamie is a little tiresome as when he foolishly wanders off, when all reason tells him to stay close to the wagons, or when he lets the Indian girl Pretty Walker outsmart him, or when he can't quite remember a couple of faces he should have known to warn him of trouble to come, or when he tolerates his father's irresponsibility -- even after he's gained a couple of years and ought to be old enough to see the problem and act more wisely for them both. Other times he's rollickingly funny as when he's missing the point of their companion Jenny's behavior toward the men around her or the cues in the girl, Po-Povi's, behavior toward him, or when his father, at last recognizing the need to provide his son with some education tries vainly to educate him a bit by teaching him Latin. The precocious young fiend turns his father's earnest efforts into hash.
The episode among the Mormons in Salt Lake City seems to leave the usually perceptive, if naive, Jamie in a pickle, unable to say anything nice about the hypocritical ruthless Danites, he nevertheless tries, uncharacteristically, to put a positive spin on the overall experience, as if the book's author feared offending a modern religious group by focusing too exclusively on a dark part of its history. Jamie and his pa manage to work their way west, though -- no surprise there -- California doesn't turn out to be quite what they expected; nor does mining for gold. But only there, at the end of their journey, with Jamie approaching 17, do we begin to see the source of his father's deficiencies and why he prefers drink to the reality around him. Only now does Jamie come to understand the true source of his father's failings.
And here at last Jamie starts to belatedly awaken (as he himself puts it near the end of the narrative), a late bloomer by modern standards, to be sure, but blooming at last with some long overdue maturity. Overall, this story is well researched and it rings true in both tone and style. If the content sometimes seems to flag, or the events become too predictable in places, or Jamie's naivete seems overdone, the tale itself is yet well crafted and carries us through in narrative sweep that lasts nearly to the end. I did finally grow impatient as I turned the final pages though, once most (but not all) of the bad guys have been dispatched and the small group of companions which had formed around Jamie and his father had finally found a place for themselves.
A deus ex machina that's not entirely surprising resolves the greater part of everyone's problems though it has little to do with the gold they had hoped to find -- and Dr. McPheeters, who has finally recovered himself, heads off again, as we knew from the start that he must since he has no part in the narrative except through the preserved letters and journal pages that Jamie includes. As for Jamie, himself, he must finally leave irresponsibility and boyhood behind when the steam boat to Sacramento arrives to close the final chapter of his narrative -- and begin a new one. Funny and moving by turns, this book is a fine read for those into good historical fiction or westerns of character rather than gunfights and Indian wars -- and, of course, for those who want to see what Huck Finn might have done had he traveled the 49'ers trail.