Our story begins in Boston in 1849, where our protagonist, Jack Flagg, and his two younger sisters, Constance and Sarah, have been raised by their maiden aunt, Arabella, since their parents’ death. Unfortunately, Arabella has used up the last of her own family fortune and is on the verge of needing to sell their family mansion. Jack, a bold boy of twelve, determines to save the family finances by running off to the gold fields of California, of which news has recently reached our fair city1.
The family butler, Praiseworthy2, accompanies Jack to the gold fields, though they are forced to stow away on the Lady Wilma after their passage fare is stolen. Upon revealing themselves to the captain, they’re promptly set to shoveling coal into the ship’s boilers…but since they’re sailing through the frigid North Atlantic, this is hardly the punishment it appears to be. Praiseworthy proves himself equally resourceful during that voyage and in the gold fields. Becalmed in the tropical doldrums, and the ship’s running low on water? How to water the grapevine cuttings one passenger’s staked his hopes on…buy the potatoes on which another passenger has staked his fortune! Stuck with a barrel full of neck ties in a community where grubby denim and worn flannel is the norm? Sell it to lovelorn miners when the first lady in deity knows how long shows up…and so on.
Upon arrival in San Francisco, they make their way to the gold mining region and start working on amassing the fortune necessary to Save The Family Domicile. They do, earning both nicknames and a reputation for clever athletic prowess along with their rather heavy fortune in gold nuggets and dust…which is lost when they go overboard after their ship explodes. All proves well in the end, as Arabella, Constance and Sarah have themselves come to San Francisco, after realizing that they too would just as soon be having adventures in the woolly gold fields, and Praiseworthy and Arabella realize that true love has bridged the divide between mistress and butler.
While it is fun to read on its own—that’s what I did, although in fairness, I was a child attending elementary school in San Francisco at the time I read it—I can see this being included as part of the curriculum for grade school kids studying the Gold Rush specifically, and nineteenth century history generally. It’s not detailed enough, much less accurate enough, to serve as primary material any more than Lawson’s Ben and Me and Mr. Revere and I could for the American Revolution. All three would do a great deal to humanize the time period, however; I think they’re rattling good adventure stories that might well prompt kids to voluntarily read more on the subject. Robbers, vandals, brigands and highwaymen, adventurers, roisterers, gruff men but kind, this is definitely a Guy Book for kids who aren’t quite ready to move on to Gary Paulsen. Certainly, Fleischman has a couple of other kids’ books set at about the same time that might also be fun to read—Mr. Midnight and Company, Jingo Django and Humbug Mountain—though they don’t have quite the same historical flavor as this one. Not that that’s necessarily a problem.
1with a nod to Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers
2isn’t that a grand foreshadowing name, now?