17th century / 21st Century
Edinburgh / Philadelphia
In another in the ever-lengthening queue of parallel-timeline historical novels, author Sherry Ostroff takes up the challenge of finding something new and interesting to write in this crowded sub-genre. And she does so within the even more heavily trafficked sub-sub-genre of Scottish parallel-timeline stories by taking up one of the more obscure yet intriguing bits of Scotland's past, the ill-fated and short-lived Darien scheme. This attempt by the Scots to colonize on their own account upon the Isthmus of Panama was dubbed the New Caledonia colony. More ominously, the scheme hoovered up and then squandered all the available financial capital of the Kingdom of Scotland, contributing to the Scottish Parliament voting itself into oblivion by consenting less than a decade later to the Act of Union in 1707.
Ms Ostroff's Caledonia is an often page-turning parallel romp through late 17th-century Edinburgh and early 21st-century Philadelphia, spinning the interwoven tales of Anna Isaac and her great-times-many-granddaughter, Hanna Duncan. There's a connection to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center that provides both the catalyst and the finances for Hanna's voyage of historical and personal discovery, mirroring the much more fraught personal journey of Anna, the teenaged daughter of a wealthy Jewish moneylender. Her astute father refuses to invest in the Darien enterprise, deeming it a fool's errand destined for ruin. Anna's story is triggered by the more familiar fleeing of an arranged marriage. In this case, she is aided by a handsome son of the clan chieftain her father had refused to bankroll in the Darien scheme. Anna hardly knows the young man but is enthralled for all that, a tale as old as time.
The author is a gifted narrator and storyteller, crafting interesting and sympathetic main characters in whom readers will find themselves invested emotionally and cheering to succeed. The dialogue is solid and threads the needle of the often difficult trade-off between dialect and reader comprehension. The scenes of Anna's long and disease-plagued voyage to the Darien colony are among the author's best, drawn with a deft hand and immersing the reader in the squalor, filth, and stench of Age of Sail trans-oceanic voyages. Likewise, her depiction of life in the closes and wynds of "Auld Reeky" a generation before the intellectual explosion of the Scottish Enlightenment, are equally vivid.
Yet there are issues with Caledonia that weaken it. The book requires a final professional proofreading to purge more than a few spelling and punctuation errors. The author's research is threadbare in places, the scenes set at the modern-day University of St Andrews an example. But all in all, this author's first work of fiction demonstrates solid storytelling and a fine ear for dialogue that holds much promise for the future.
Ms Ostroff touches all the bases for this sub-genre. There are the requisite parallel love stories, along with the necessary quota of closely-run brushes with danger. Caledonia is therefore a good choice for readers who enjoy fiction set in Scotland or can't get enough parallel timeline stories with strong women in the lead.
Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds
© Jeffrey K. Walker