Arts & Entertainment: Local historian turns research into gripping novel

Writing historical fiction is not an easy endeavor. Unlike penning a science fiction or fantasy story, the “historical” side of a historical fiction work has to be correct or face the wrath of history buffs who are always eager to call foul and point out timeline mistakes. They might just come up speechless in the latest work by M.M. Justus, “True Gold.” The 200-pager follows the adventures of Karin Myre, a teenaged assistant to a Seattle seamstress who gambles with her future after seeing the arrival of the Portland, a steamer filled with gold at the dawning of the Alaskan gold rush that would make “Klondike fever” a common phrase. Myre leaves her life of work and poverty to take her chances at a new life by sneaking onto a steamer bound for the ice and treasure of the Klondike and finds misery, adventure and love along the way. She travels with a photographer, modeled after real-life Eric Hegg, whose extensive photographic record of the gold rush is housed in part at the University of Washington and struggles in a “man’s world” with a strength that can best be described as Norwegian girl power.

“I had dealt with men who looked askance at my attire, at my circumstances, and at my independence,” states a passage in the book. “I was who I was, and even now I am still proud of it. But Will was right. I had dealt with them without batting an eyelash. I had not been nervous around any of them and none of their opinions of me had made me feel small. Except for Captain Trelane. And now Mr. Lawson. Mr. Lawson did not eat supper with us the following evening. The only time I saw him that day was when I went out to care for the goats while he and Will were working at the sawpit. Even at that distance, I could see his gaze fastened upon me, and I hastened through the routine of feeding and watering them, using the mining shovel I had purchased in Dyea to scoop their frozen manure onto the heap beginning to rival Will’s logpile. Will saw him watching me, too, or perhaps noticed me watching them, and frowned as he pulled the saw down through the log perched on the scaffold. Or I suppose he could have been scowling at the sawdust landing on his head. He had ended up on the bottom somehow, although I knew if he truly minded he would be on top. Neither position seemed to be desirable, but after the first two or three planks they both seemed to have gotten the hang of it. I supposed if I stayed out of the way, nothing untoward would happen. Mr. Lawson had no excuse to search me out.”

The details of this romance-and-adventure story prove the historical research paid off and paint a word picture so vivid that readers can see the story play out in their minds as they endure the stares of the prospectors or the chill of the Klondike air through Myre’s telling of her tale. Justus has a bachelor’s degree in British and American literature and history, a master’s degree in library science and a certificate in museum studies, after all. She is also a member of the Heritage League of Pierce County, and all of that education pours out of this book. The $3.99 book is available for the Kindle through Amazon and in many other e-formats on Smashwords. It is not available in paper yet. “True Gold” is the second of three books in the series. “Repeating History” takes a science fiction turn when 20-year-old college dropout Chuck McManis is strolling the geyser boardwalks in Yellowstone National Park in 1959, when an earthquake plunges him more than 80 years back in time, into his own past – to become the great-grandfather he had idolized as a boy. The third book, “Finding Home,” is coming out next year.

Reviewed by Steve Dunkelberger

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