Abortion, death of animals including a dog, description of bear-baiting, discussions of homophobia and racism
Prospects of a Woman is a historical novel, very much not a romance, about a woman who finds her independence in California during the Gold Rush. It’s written by a local author and the sense of place is solid all throughout the book, anchoring the story of an angry woman who feels incomplete for much of the story. While I did not like the main character initially, I did enjoy her character development, and I also enjoyed the depictions of the many different roles women played during this time in California’s history.
Elizabeth comes to California, along with her emotionally distant new husband, Nate, in search of her father. Elizabeth finds her father but he promptly abandons her (again). Elizabeth struggles with her own sexual and emotional and physical needs while realizing that Nate has his own struggles with sexuality. As the book progresses, Elizabeth learns to survive during the Gold Rush and learns to take advantage of the opportunities offered to her by a world in which gender norms are challenged daily. Along the way Elizabeth writes to her friend back in Concord, Louisa May Alcott, describing the life she wishes she were having instead of the one she lives.
This book is told from Elizabeth’s point of view, but at first I had a hard time caring about her fate. For about half of the book, Elizabeth is self-centered. She is neither kind nor compassionate. She is constantly angry and frustrated and, because she has no healthy outlet for these feelings, she is sometimes mean and petty. Though she is filled with shame after saying or doing a nasty thing to a person, she never apologizes.
Above all, Elizabeth feels deeply that she needs the love of a man to complete her. Abandoned or betrayed by a series of men beginning with her father, she is full of rage at men for failing to meet her needs. The satisfaction of the book comes in following her arc of becoming at peace with herself as her own, complete person.
As the book progresses, Elizabeth develops not only more independence, but also a more nuanced sense of other people, transforming her initial disgust with Nate’s sexuality into compassion and respect. Readers should know that her initial realization that Nate is only attracted to men is one of confusion and repulsion, and it takes a long time for her to progress beyond that point. This makes sense for her character but is still difficult to read. I was pleased that she develops compassion and respect for Nate eventually and has a non-judgemental friendship with a woman who would “take any woman over a man” later in the story.
The Gold Rush is an interesting, if harrowing, time period to study because so many social norms loosened during this time. People of multiple ethnicities and nationalities and religions and classes worked alongside each other in a way that was often fraught with racism and violence, but also involved a social mix that was unheard of elsewhere. California encouraged women to come to the state by offering women a variety of rights they did not have elsewhere, including the right to divorce and to own property in their own name whether married or not. This book uses Elizabeth, an initially rigid but hard working character, to explore how this social upheaval might affect one woman (a White, working class, educated woman from Concord).
I loved seeing some of the many ways that women (including women of Mexican and of Spanish descent as well as African-American women) participated in the Gold Rush depicted on the page. Elizabeth grows to rely on a network of women (married and single) who run or work in various kinds of business, including panning for gold themselves. This wide scope of opportunity is key to Elizabeth’s experiences in the book and to her emotional growth as a person beyond being defined by a father and a husband, and makes for fascinating reading.
This book has a rocky start given Elizabeth’s many character flaws, but that makes her eventual character development all the more rewarding. Fans of history, especially women’s history, will find the historical details in the book to be fascinating. While I read the first half of the book only for the history, the second half had truly rewarding character development and turned the book into one for my keeper shelf.