Living as an independent woman in the late 19th century, Eliza Waite struggles with societal norms, gender inequalities, and elusive love. After the tragic death of her husband and son on a remote island in Washington’s San Juan Islands, Eliza joins the throng of miners, fortune hunters, business owners, con men, and prostitutes traveling north to the Klondike in the spring of 1898 in search of their personal piece of gold. Eliza arrives in Skagway, Alaska, with less than fifty dollars to her name. With some savvy, and the help of some unsavory characters, Eliza opens a successful bakery on Skagway’s main street, where she befriends a madam at a neighboring bordello. Eliza finds herself juxtaposed between both traditional and untraditional feminine roles, and chooses to turn her back on the past and follow the ideals of the growing women’s suffrage movement. When a man from her past turns up in Skagway, Eliza is unsure if she will be able to conceal her identity and move forward with her new life. Part diary, part recipe file, and part Gold Rush history, Eliza Waite transports readers to the sights, sounds, smells – and tastes – of a raucous and fleeting era of American history.
March 9, 1898
Partly sunny, cool. North to the Klondike.
Eliza marks each step on the forward deck. She finds herself a spot at the port rail, and stares back over the smoke-filled city of Seattle. Eliza licks her chapped lips and tastes salt. She balls her fists to keep warm and stamps her feet on the planked deck. She blends into the crowd and observes her fellow passengers, who clang clang clang up the gangway of the SS Ketchikan in droves.
The dapper men wear sack coats with matching waistcoats and trousers, and knee-length overcoats, trimmed with finest fur. The more fashionable among the men wear their hair short and sport pointed beards with no moustache, and top hats. Few top hats line the railings, however, as the majority of men on board wear the trappings of a woodsman, and carry their belongings close: picks, shovels, saws, rifles, and mining pans hanging hurdy-gurdy from their backs. A loud chorus of male voices overwhelms the groaning of the ship.
The society women wear heavily corseted traveling gowns, with the new leg o’mutton sleeves that balloon down to a tight wristlet. These stylish voyagers seem out of place, especially with their outlandish hats, some with ostrich feathers or dulled eyes of fox. The sporting women, on the other hand, wear tailored menswear, with high-collared blouses and skirts above the ankle, and expose the lower half of the leg above buttoned boots. Some of these daring women do not wear hats at all. Eliza admires the new look of their hair: soft and wavy, and quite feminine, framing faces and sending tendrils down their necks. Eliza’s severe bun and absurd outfit mark her as some other type of woman, amorphous and indistinguishable, perhaps a miner herself.
Eliza does not leave the port rail. As the steamer leaves Elliott Bay and heads north up Puget Sound, Eliza assesses that of the three hundred and some-odd aboard, less than thirty are female. She pulls Jacob’s slouch hat down over her face so that only her eyes and nose poke out. She wraps Jacob’s coat around her to stave off the wind. She reaches for one of the hot buns in her coat pocket and unwraps it slowly.
The Ketchikan plows up the Inside Passage from Seattle to Alaska, and passes layers of islands that mirror Cypress – silhouettes of ghost-like islands receding into dense mist. The vessel overnights at Nanaimo and Campbell River, and takes on additional passengers at Port Hardy. Eliza wonders how another human soul can fit on the already overcrowded steamer.
Below deck, the vessel reeks of human filth, but its stink minimizes on the upper decks. Room in steerage becomes even more cramped as people begin to spread out, and Eliza chooses to sleep sitting up in a corner. She wonders if she will ever be warm again.
One day I will wear a fur coat, and fur boots, and fur-lined mitts. Perhaps the fur will be the common fox, or perhaps the smoothest mink. But tonight I would wear the fur of a great brown bear if it would keep out this chill.
— from Eliza Waite