T he Appointment is a sprawling novel of the gold rush years in the American West embroidered with the authenticity of historical facts woven into the mostly fictional story of Kit Carson's daughter, Adaline. Little is known of her other than her birth to an Arapaho woman and that, as a young child, Carson sent her to relatives in Missouri. Few details exist about her death.
Spokane writer John Keeble has used a novelist's imagination and the hard truths of that murderous era to create a compelling drama of a young woman who returns West with a cousin traveling in a wagon train. Adaline is proud of her father's legacy and as she matures is determined to become skilled and independent, like her father, despite dangerous times. In Keeble's telling, her Native heritage instilled in the girl a finely tuned sensitivity to the many tribal people she encounters, including a gruesome killing field of starving Natives.
Although Kit Carson is the historical linchpin of the novel, his association with John C. Frémont provides the intellectual underpinning. Frémont and Carson were famous explorers of the West. Frémont was well educated and kept detailed journals, maps and physical locations of the territory they traveled. Carson was uneducated and probably illiterate, which took nothing away from his courage and skill as an explorer. Frémont eventually became a wealthy landholder and businessman in the gold rush era and, in 1856, a Republican Party presidential contender. Eventually, he plays an important role in the life Keeble imagines for Adaline.
In his story Adaline excelled at school in Missouri, and traveling west her most prized possession was a collection of Frémont's journals and maps that had been given to her as a gift.
The historical backdrop to the story is both a strength and occasional weakness of the novel. The introduction of family history and the names and details of relationships tends to bog down the emerging story, at times giving it the pace of the lumbering wagons crossing the plains. Keeble rescues his story when Adaline finally reunites with her father. Soon she confronts his expectation that she will marry a young man he has selected for her.
As her story unfolds against the backdrop of Western landscapes and history, we learn secrets of her early life. She develops a romantic interest in a young man other than Louis, the man chosen by her father. This new friend instilled in her the notion of the "day's possibles," ideas carried in the mind not in the pack for the trail.
Keeble acknowledges in the postscript the challenge of a white man writing from the point of view of young, half-Arapaho woman "who lived in a willfully spirited, mercenary world." I appreciate the author's honest concern about an issue — appropriation of other voices and cultures — which is very alive in today's world of writing and storytelling, but, as a reader, I was not concerned. Keeble's Adaline is a strong young woman who "accepted nothing at face value." In the scene with her father about marrying Louis, Carson asks her, "He does not displease you?"
"Displease?" she says. "It hadn't occurred to her to think of it in that way. She only felt an inertia, a pleasuring in things just as they were, though she knew things would have to change. It was the 'possibles' again, but of a life, not a day."
In this passage the reader is on Adaline's side, worried along with her about marrying Louis. Years later, when we see her as an intrepid traveler, a lone horseback rider dragging a travois to carry her belongings through mountains and among mining camps, we are rooting for her.
It would be unfair to Keeble to discuss this book without mentioning a sub-theme he calls out in his postscript: racism. This novel, he says, is "a fragile testimony to my efforts to understand the durability of American racism."
Read this book and you will find that theme. It's there in the treatment of Chinese and other immigrants in the mines, the subhuman treatment of Miwoks and other indigenous people across the West. It is there in the hypocrisy of Frémont and others who supported abolition even as their workers in the mines and elsewhere in the region were virtual slaves.
The Appointment is a multi-layered novel about a strong young woman set against the true story of Western settlement, and about the endurance of family ties amidst the cruel clashes of invaders from the East and the South against those who, for centuries, had called this land home. ♦