I was continually surprised as I read the novel--the depth and diversity of character development was unexpected and quite a treat. The detail in which the frontier towns of Alaska were described was not only entertaining but also informative. I actually asked myself the question: "Why am I so surprised and delighted?" The answer was an interesting one.
Both before and after reading Treadwell, I was reading authors who wrote around 1915--western romance writer Zane Grey and young adult action novelist Joseph Altsheler. Altsheler's novels were his The Guns of Europe trilogy. What I realized after reading Compton's Treadwell historical novel was that one hundred years of historical perspective can add a great deal to a writer's toolbox. Compton develops characters of the Filipino, Native American, and various immigrant cultures with compassion and understanding that is possible because of the hundred years of experience time has provided. Women are characterized with more realism and sensitivity--especially two sisters in the novel, Florence and Fiona, who act as foils for the women's issues of the times. Loss of culture, changing cultures, and immigration to new cultures are significant to the novel. Key minor characters to the action of the story are members of racial and ethnic minorities, which allows for a richer experience of the times.
In an way, the Alaska Territory is an important "character" in the novel because of the significant interaction and influence it has with the human characters. And the basic story? A Pinkerton detective arrives in Alaska to solve a murder. While doing so, he falls in love with both a woman and the land--and becomes embroiled in World War I politics and German saboteur intrigues to keep the United States either out of the war or to weaken its ability to go to war. How can this be done in Alaska? The answer is gold.
The novel has some weaknesses. A short background chapter on gold mining is written in present tense, which is a contrast to the past tense explication of the novel's action. Some of the prefatory material for the chapters (mostly historical artifacts) is overlong, but that is easily remedied by just skipping the reading and getting on with the story. I didn't do this until the suspense built at the end of the novel. Then I just skipped to the action. (We've all done this, haven't we?) Some proofreading errors exist, but they were far enough apart that I was able to enjoy the development of the story.
I know that one of my major complaints about reading some writers of the turn of the century, such as Zane Grey and Joseph Altsheler, is that I am uncomfortable with the racial, ethnic, gender, and ideological perspectives of the time. I don't want Hispanics dismissively stereotyped, or a woman characterized as being strong, considering she's a woman, or entire races or cultures mentioned but never explored or celebrated. After reading Alsheler's trilogy of the beginning of World War I, the idea that war is bad was evident in his writing--and I appreciated that--but as a writer, it was evident that the man had no desire to create that ugliness with his words. Therefore, war didn't seem so bad; after all, the protagonist lived through it without maiming wounds--and got the girl. How many young men--and now young women--have gone off to a brave, beautiful war and were returned in a body bag or buried far from home or returned as the walking wounded?
Leonard Compton's Treadwell, a Novel of Alaska Territory provided me with the opportunity to have those grating historical perspectives rectified in a novel. I was able to experience the diversity of culture that the frontier attracted. I was able to observe individuals wrestling with the democratic issues of the time: people with a voice instead of imperialism, participatory democracy instead of anarchism, gender equality rather than inequality, racial and ethnic inclusion rather than exclusion. I found this highly satisfying.
Even if only a minority of the population of 1915 could be called socially aware by the standards we hold today, it is highly fulfilling to read their story and to engage in their challenges and triumphs. It might be retro civil rights activism, it might be wishful thinking, but it feels good.
Treadwell, a Novel of Alaska Territory is also available an an ebook through Smashwords.
Copyright 2011 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved