We meet nineteen year old Nettie Miller married to a pig of a man, Billy Williams, who abuses and beats her in the off-hand casually violent manner of his times. The first amazing scenes find her struggling for safety and a shred of dignity, immersed in a culture of suppression of women and confused religious hypocrisy. Then the unthinkable. Nettie loses control and 'brains' Billy with a full kettle, knocking him sprawling over a steep cliff, seeming to break his head. The adventure begins when a delirious man with a thick English accent (and a fiercely infected tooth that almost kills him) stumbles into her camp, and Nettie decides to escape inevitable prosecution and retaliation by Billy's wealthy family. She drags Gord Gafford into her wagon and tries, over the next days, to simply survive. Through some raucous action, we learn much about the mores and pain of women in a society that is unforgiving and quite periodically vicious.
Nettie soon discloses her horrible plight to Gord, who also has poignant stories of depraved treatment at the hands of his family back in the Manchester Mills. As they get to know and like each other, the unthinkable happens. Half-dead Billy is dragged into Nelson, and attacks Nettie, in spite of his own wounds. Gord comes to Nettie's rescue, but they are forced to flee both frontier justice and too close scrutiny. All through a series of poignant encounters, we learn of a society radically different from modern sensibilities, of the life of a simple, trusting girl, and of the rough and brutalizing quest for survival in a frontier without rules.
Gord and Nettie end up in Kaslo, another wild town in the grip of gold and silver 'fever'. They live with two conscience-less denizens —- the 'confidence man' Will and the whore Dolly, two fabulous 'characters' —- who also take the couple in and help them survive a bitter winter. Life in these camps is often nightmarish if you haven't money and a 'claim'. Nettie gets pregnant, Gord must leave to seek his fortune for a few months, and Nettie is at the mercy of predatory men and 'low down' women. In a scene of sad but predictable neglect, Nettie is left alone and her baby dies at birth.
After much suffering and some violence, Nettie and Will leave for the greatest and most recent 'strike', the 1890s Eldarado, Sandon. Will is the consummate 'scammer' and user, and pressures Nettie to use her beauty to become a singer and 'Variety girl', and then sets her up to become one of the camp whores. Alone and vulnerable, she resists doggedly. The life of the camps is exposed, the depravity of half-brutal men in a frontier scramble for riches at any cost. Nettie barely survives Will's depredations, and in a startling development, Gord reappears and violence of many sorts ensues. Will is beaten and damaged, scarcely surviving.
The final part of the novel takes a fascinating turn. Nettie escapes with a fortune that Will had hidden and tries to find a new life. On the train to fabled San Francisco, she meets John and Samuel Turner, wealthy upper class gentlemen of high, if overreaching morality. Nettie is both attracted and repulsed by parts of the family's missionary work among the poor, and she falls for John Turner, maybe to quench her bruised conscience. The last chapters are tense and revealing. Though married, we see that Nettie has not escaped her boom time adventures unscathed. She puts it all at risk through a quite 'carnal' affair with a man who seems to obsess her. The Turner family finds out. Many lies and suppressed impulses are revealed, and Nettie barely escapes exposure and retaliation. Yet, she has learned great lessons, and, has, remarkably, fought free of the crucible of the Boom Times.
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