Click here for Luan Gaines' review of The Colour
When I was a kid, we went to Knott’s Berry Farm one summer, and I panned for gold. First we got a panning lesson from a not-so-authentic-looking guy in a miner’s costume, and then we got to try it ourselves. Like computer Solitaire, it’s easy, but not fun; you scoop up dirt and water in your pan, swirl it around in a circular motion, and after an interminable interval, you’ve swished out all the dirt in your pan, leaving a (very) few grains of pure, gleaming gold. Once I’d had enough, they put the grains in a little flask of water, which I kept for a surprisingly long time before deciding it was lame and throwing it out. This is the entirety of my firsthand experience with gold in its natural, non-jewelry form, and, if it’s not already obvious, it failed to inspire anything like gold fever in me.
Clearly, I’d make a piss-poor prospector, since even the actual presence of gold in my pan failed to excite me. If I were a real prospector, the merest rumors of gold in them thar hills would send me on a wild goose chase after dreams of wealth, gambling everything I owned on the chance of striking it rich. Case in point: the mid-nineteenth-century gold rush in New Zealand.
The Colour opens in 1864, as Joseph Blackstone, his spirited bride Harriet, and Joseph’s aged mother Lilian experience their first New Zealand winter. Joseph has brought his little family from England to the rural area outside Christchurch to make a new start – he’s bought some land, he’s built a house of cob (a sort of mortar made of mud and grasses), he’s picked up a cow and some chickens. Joseph envisions a thriving farm: ripe vegetables bursting out of fertile ground, eggs and butter to trade for other goods, and so on. Alas, there are difficulties with realizing this pretty dream. Against his workers’ advice, Joseph’s placed the house on a high, wind-swept plain, where the bitter winter wind strikes hardest; not anticipating such terrible cold, the Blackstones have neglected to build a shelter for their livestock. They’re running out of money fast, and Lilian is obviously miserable at having been dragged halfway around the world to freeze to death.
Somehow, they make it through the winter, and with spring comes an unexpected discovery: Joseph, digging a pond for the garden, finds glints of gold in the overturned dirt. Suddenly, his dreams of farming seem pitifully small-time, and Joseph devotes his days to panning for gold, hiding his treasure from his wife and mother. But it’s hard to keep secrets in a one-room house, and Harriet finds the gold soon enough. With an unpleasant shock, Harriet realizes that she really doesn’t know her new husband at all, and wonders what else he may be hiding. When rumors of a gold rush filter down to Christchurch, Joseph – now fully in the grip of gold fever – is unstoppable. Cashing in the remainder of their savings, he joins the hordes of hopeful men, all dreaming of finding the “Homeward Bounder,” a lode so rich that they can return home as wealthy men. Can the Blackstones pull together against the odds and muddle through? Or will their individual desires undermine the idyllic dream that brought them to New Zealand?
Rose Tremain writes confidently and well, lacing her prose with enough period detail to be convincing and thorough without impeding the narrative flow. I found no noticeable anachronisms, which is quite a feat in historical fiction. The descriptions are vivid and strong; we’re aware, though the characters are not, of the hubris of pitting ourselves against nature, and the audacity of setting up little shantytowns on the edges of the wilderness to more conveniently tear up the earth in search of precious minerals. Far from romanticizing the gold rush, Tremain shows us its deleterious effects on the existing settlements, on the native Maori, and on the prospectors themselves. Despite the myths, most prospectors never found gold, or at least, not enough to make their fortunes; many of them died of disease or malnutrition in the harsh conditions. The author does a good job of showing the optimistic-bordering-on-delusional dreams that drive the men on in spite of the appalling odds.
The characters are realistic and (heavily) flawed, driven by their irrational fears and desires. They are convincing without being particularly sympathetic; none of them has a shred of humor, and nobody ever does anything nice for anyone else, or even anything without a self-serving ulterior motive. It’s a rather pessimistic view of human nature, and doesn’t do much to endear the characters to the reader. Likewise, the plot is a total downer; don’t expect a neat, fairy-tale resolution. The pace moves rather slowly, and gets further bogged down by an odd, dream-like subplot, involving an English boy and his Maori governess, that doesn’t seem particularly relevant or meaningful. Richly detailed and deeply tragic, The Colour is a brutally pessimistic look at how self-delusion, desire, and greed wrecks lives. If this is what gold fever does to you, I’m glad I’m immune.