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K. Patrick Conner
Retired newspaper editor Elliott Madison has written a book about his great-grandfather's harrowing journey around Cape Horn and his great-grandmother's tragic journey west on the California Trail, the homestead they developed into a prosperous ranch in Northern California. But Madison's life is turned upside down when a woman from New York City flies out to San Francisco and tells him that she believes a distant relative, a former Civil War infantryman named Benjamin Harrigan, and his great-grandmother were lovers.
Conner draws on his experience as a long-time reporter/editor to imbue welcome authenticity into this polished story of a reckoning with the past. Elliott Madison, retired after three decades at a daily paper himself, is writing a book about his illustrious great-grandfather, William Henry Madison, a Gold Rush-er and global traveler who never struck it rich in the Sierra-Nevada gold fields but, with his wife, Amelia Snyder Madison, built a California homestead into a successful sheep ranch. Elliott is surprised when Phoebe Crighton, a stranger, contacts him seeking information for a genealogical inquiry of her own: her great-grandmother’s uncle, Benjamin Harrigan, worked at the Madison ranch, and Phoebe wants to know more. Phoebe visits Elliott in California, and his worshipful image of his family’s past is challenged by the suggestion that Benjamin and Amelia might have been lovers.

Conner’s unusual plotline will resonate with readers fascinated by genealogy research, especially as Phoebe and Elliott uncover more information, and their friendship blossoms. Elliott’s somewhat myopic view of William’s life, with a focus on heroic endeavors like a ship journey around Cape Horn, makes Elliott believable and relatable. But Conner hints at Elliott’s greater depth and his capacity to be open to new ideas. Elliott gradually seems willing to embrace her positive, inquisitive nature, enabling him to explore the greater truths of his family’s heritage and write about their remarkable lives along with their human frailties.

Conner’s novel is a moving consideration of how art imitates life, as artist/author Elliott expands his world to include Phoebe and all she’s discovered about how her own ancestor’s impact on his great-grandmother’s life. With his engagingly detailed depictions of Amelia’s harrowing trip west on a wagon train as well as Benjamin’s traumatic days as a Union soldier, Conner offers both a riveting glimpse of the past and what it takes to face it honestly today.

Takeaway: A compelling novel centered on a retiree facing the surprising truth of his California ancestors’ lives.

Great for fans of: Kristin Hannah’s The Four Winds, William Martin’s Bound for Gold.

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A