The Prospectors: A Novel

  • By Ariel Djanikian
  • William Morrow
  • 384 pp.

This adventure falls short on likable characters but boasts an addictive plot.

The Prospectors: A Novel

About 100 pages into Ariel Djanikian’s The Prospectors, I realized I didn’t like any of the novel’s characters. Of course, this isn’t necessarily a signifier of a book’s merits; The Goldfinch, with its almost entirely unpleasant cast, won a Pulitzer Prize. Unfortunately, in The Prospectors’ case, the combination of such characters and a deeply disconcerting — albeit propulsive — plot makes for a book that leaves the reader unsatisfied.

Toggling between 1897-1904 and 2015, the novel tells two stories: one about the white Berry and Bush families, united by marriage and staking a claim in the Klondike at the turn of the 20th century, and another about their modern-day descendants, a young woman named Anna, her husband, Owen, and her grandfather Peter, who are all attempting to rectify a wrong perpetrated against the Klondike’s First Nations peoples during that long-ago mad Gold Rush.

The narrative of the past is told through the eyes of Alice Bush, the sister of Ethel Berry, who traveled west and struck it rich with her husband, Clarence. Alice is accompanying Ethel north on the Berrys’ return to the Klondike. At first, she seems a kind helpmeet but quickly begins to show flashes of repressed greed and dangerous jealousy.

After Clarence’s brother, who has worked the stakes all winter, teases Alice about her receiving a share of the claim shortly after arriving, she retorts in her head:

“Too bad if you spent the winter here and feel you are owed for it…Too bad if you believed that scooping gravel out of the earth, swirling it, holding the gold in your palms, in the gray vaulted days of November to March, meant that you owned it. Too bad if you failed to learn this American lesson: it doesn’t matter the patch of ground you sleep on, or what your own two hands have wrestled out of the earth. What matters is this piece of paper with English writing.”

Certainly, this may be an unfortunate truth of capitalism, but it’s a shockingly entitled and uncharitable view from an early 1900s woman with no stake on the claim herself.

Similarly, Alice takes a dim and racist view of the land’s First Nations inhabitants, pushing her brother-in-law to ignore his non-white porter Jim’s advice — advice that later turns out to have saved their lives — and taking an instant dislike to Jim’s sister, Jane, whom she accuses of stealing a pouch of gold nuggets. (The real explanation for the nuggets’ disappearance is far more insidious.)

The tension between the Indigenous peoples and the Berry/Bush clan comes to a head when Jane alleges Clarence fathered her son several years before, when he came to the Klondike alone and single. With Alice’s malicious influence, Clarence takes the mixed-race child to be raised as an orphan by his family, and when Jane attempts to see her boy, Alice does everything she can to prevent the reunion.

This, in fact, is the injustice Peter, Anna, and Owen are trying to address by returning to Jane’s descendants some of the wealth gained in the Gold Rush. Unfortunately, the three are so self-righteous — at one point, Owen lectures Anna about not spending enough time thinking about “the people who suffered to make your phone,” adding, “The harm we do to other people is so obfuscated by all these layers of economic transactions that it’s almost totally hidden” — that it’s difficult to take them seriously.

Perhaps the author’s point is that modern-day do-gooders are as blinkered by their own ambition as were the Gold Rushers, but the parallel feels both simplistic and unnecessary. And in the end, neither story ends in a satisfying manner. If Djanikian had made her cast a bit more relatable, the lessons of her novel might have resonated better. Instead, readers’ inevitable deep dislike for almost every character will make it difficult for them to focus on anything but the fast-moving plot.

Mariko Hewer is a freelance editor and writer. She is passionate about good books, good food, and good company. Find her occasional insights at @hapahaiku.

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