Title: Tears of the Mountain
Author: John Addiego
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books): ” On July 4th, 1876, Jeremiah McKinley looks forward to a great day among friends, family, and heroes in Sonoma County, California. Famous speakers, lurid carnival booths, historical displays, brass bands, foot races, and ballgames are scheduled at the county seat in Santa Rosa. Most important, McKinley’s only teacher, Professor Elijah Applewood, is returning to California from the East Coast to visit him after an absence of twenty-five years. However, McKinley’s celebration of the American centennial is troubled by the words of the dead, who seem intent on contacting him in dreams and through the seeming transmigration of his father’s soul to the person of a little boy. Furthermore, a series of puzzling notes and messages follows him throughout the day, and a local spiritualist expresses enmity toward him. When a visiting senator is found dead, suspicion leads to his old rival, Professor Applewood, whose sudden disappearance from the festivities makes McKinley a suspected accessory to a fugitive.
Throughout this day McKinley reflects on the journey that brought him here, the wondrous and hazardous trek among pioneers from Missouri to California, the Bear Flag War, the Sonoma Mission, and the Gold Rush. It is exactly this past that has caught him up inextricably in the mysterious, portentous events that take hold of him as he communes with his departed first wife, Teresa; ponders his first love and current wife, Lucinda, as well as his former rival for her love, William. Moreover, he remembers his father, a distant, God-crazed, self-proclaimed preacher who had wandered the wilderness alone throughout most of Jeremiah’s childhood. As the day ends, the senator’s assassin and the author of the disturbing messages are revealed. McKinley has his last congress with the dead and confronts his greatest threat, emerging secure in the love of his wife and children as old mysteries come to light.”
Thoughts: Tears of the Mountain is a one-part literary fiction, one-part mystery, and one-part historical fiction. It makes for an interesting combination, albeit a rather slow one. From a historical perspective, the novel is fascinating. From such scenes as crossing the Great Plains on the road from Missouri to Oregon and then down to California via wagon train to the beginnings of the Mexican War and the centennial of the United States, Mr. Addiego places the reader in these historical settings with crisp details and refreshing clarity.
Jeremiah McKinley is a deliberate hero, one who is methodical and slow in all his dealings, and the novel suffers a bit as a result. His plodding through the one day that encompasses the novel drags at times, especially as the story is told through flashbacks of his life. The transitions back and forth between past and present are quite unusual and remain jarring throughout the novel. Yet, the timing of them was masterful as Mr. Addiego builds the suspense between Jeremiah’s past and his experiences on this July 4th in 1876. Just as the story gets interesting, Mr. Addiego tears the reader away and switches back and forth, so that the reader is compelled to continue.
The two-stories-in-one is not a new plot device and one that works only partially in Tears of the Mountain. At times, the reader does not care what is happening in the present because the past is so interesting. The present conflict is more a side note to everything that Jeremiah experienced in his youth, and ultimately, this is where the story shines the brightest.
The language alternates between stark and fanciful, and the dichotomy is also a bit jolting. The characters themselves remain stereotypical, with the eccentric but lovable rascally schoolteacher to the beautiful woman whom everyone adores to the thieving Indians and Mexican bandits. However, Mr. Addiego manages to create a novel that highlights the twists and turns life can take and how impossible it is to predict them.
While not for everyone, Tears of the Mountain is a novel that details the hard-scrabble life of living on the frontier in the 1800s. The characters, while predictable, are still memorable, and the story itself is best when the reader is exploring Jeremiah’s personal and physical journey across the country. It is not a novel I would highly recommend to others but one for which I am glad I read because of the historical context and learnings.
Thank you to NetGalley for my review copy!