I found a copy of Isabel Allende’s “Daughter of Fortune” at a little used bookstore nestled between a Peter Piper Pizza and a Payless Shoe Store in a strip mall in Colorado Springs. The sky was gray; the great Pike’s Peak was visible through a hole in the low-lying clouds that were preparing to pound the little town with a blanket of snow. I needed something fast – lest the weather catch me without anything to read during the oncoming blizzard. As I hunted through the volumes, outside snowflakes had begun to fall in ones and twos, melting immediately upon the damp pavement. Then one flitted down to clutch stubbornly onto the roll-away bookshelf; joined by another and then another. Then at once the sky opened, blanketing the valley in a mantle of silence.
“This one,” I said – setting aside the pile of books by unknown authors I’d been thumbing through, always a gamble, electing instead something that I knew would be right. I paid my dollar and rushed to my car, outmaneuvering the shoppers hastening from the supermarket – plastic bags in one hand as they fumbled for car keys in deep pockets with the other.
Home – alone – I grabbed a craft beer for which Colorado is known and, snow starting to pile up outside I opened the book to the first page, feeling down the crease and smelling the earthen goodness of print on book-paper.
“Daughter of Fortune” is the story of a little Chilean girl who goes searching for her love; lost as he is among the hordes of adventurers in gold-rush California. He’d become a 49er, and she – disguising her identity to ward off unwanted advances from that indelicate lot – a teenage Chinese boy. Did she find him? Was he really her love? What did she learn in the process? These things you’ll have to read the book to discover.
What I like about the book was that it was about Allende herself just as much as it was about Eliza (the heroine). Allende’s life has been fraught with insecurity and anxiety; and like any good writer she infuses that into her literature. While born wealthy, she was forced into exile. She fled to Venezuela – where so many Chileans fled during the Pinochet years – and wrote for El Nacional until she moved again, and again. Until finally she found a place where her troubled heart was at rest, and the wandering stopped: California.
This book is permeated with those two worlds and her experience of them. Valparaiso, an exotic port town which was great and important for a season, but fell away when the Panama Canal shortened the distance. And California – the far-western flank of a great new empire. The old and the new – the past and the future: both a part of this great writer. She loves California – you can tell by the way she describes the mountains and the forests; the energy. But she is and always will be Chilean – Allende, a name vested with all the tribulations of that romantic old land.
I finished the book on a rainy morning in West Africa – life takes us so many places; it is at once so long and so very short – but tied together by the threads of what we believe and what we find important. So now, as I put this book down, satisfied, I hope that you will pick it up – you’ll be better for it. And isn’t that what we read for?