In 1900, when Esther Crummy leaves her marriage behind and travels to Seattle, she has nothing in mind but starting a new life. A ship is sailing for the gold fields of Alaska, and Essie is determined to be on it. She propositions the foreman of the Cape Nome Company, Nate Deaton, to care for the horses on the ocean voyage.
A capable horsewoman from her days on the family farm, Esther appreciates the income that can be made from buying and selling horses and, later, dogs for sledding to remote claims. Essie will avail herself of these myriad opportunities, as well as delivering US mail to various companies setting up their holdings in the Nome fields.
Men and women are converging on Alaska from all over the country in the early 1900s, seeking their fortunes in mining and the industries that spring up around the booming camps, stables, saloons, general stores, building tent cities on open land “anywhere there was a man at work to fill it with a building… cigars, patent medicines, mine brokering, tooth extractions, or salooning.”
Essie allows herself the comfort of a friendship with Deaton, attracted by his subtle mannerisms and social refinements, but she is haunted by the past she has left behind. The enterprising daughter of a respected father in Minnesota, Esther has left a husband, Leonard, along with a heartbreaking memory.
Originally her father’s hired hand, Leonard presents himself well enough. Essie imagines he is a like-minded soul to partner her on the land; she learns all too soon of her husband’s weakness for the bottle. Leonard nurtures private demons while his wife’s spirit quickly turns from attribute to aggravation, his own failings made more noticeable by her accomplishments. Their marriage spirals into discontent; Leonard seeks solace elsewhere and Essie charts a future far from her home and family.
Cutting a determined swath in her new environment, Esther is all but lost in the surging humanity of the gold fields, the chaos and cacophony of men hustling for riches, teeming throngs of prospectors, shopkeepers, hustlers and pioneers who voraciously attack the land to force its bounty. There is potential on every side, and this is a woman who has the wisdom to act on her inspirations.
Clearly she is driven, a natural entrepreneur whose personal disappointments lies disguised behind an industrious character. But when Leonard pursues her across the ocean, Esther is forced to confront the painful memories he evokes, all too aware that Nate is less likely to run rampant over her dreams. Having promised ‘til death do us part, she owes Leonard.
In the social upheaval of Alaska’s booming economy, Esther breaks another kind of ground: a female tackling a man’s world, the excesses of weather and hardship nothing compared to the emotional extremes Essie must traverse in order to make peace with the life she has claimed.