By Carol Edgarian
Hardcover: Scribner, March 2021
336 pages, $27.00
Paperback: Scribner, March 2022
352 pages, $17.99
As a lifelong Californian and frequent visitor to San Francisco, I’ve long been interested in the 1906 earthquake, particularly how it was the dividing line between old and new SF and a tectonic shift in its culture (sorry!). So Carol Edgarian’s Vera was a must-read.
Fifteen-year-old Vera Johnson is the illegitimate daughter of Rose, the infamous madam of a bordello in the Barbary Coast section of town, and a father whose identity remains unknown to Vera until late in the story. Rose has farmed Vera out to be raised by a Swedish immigrant widow with a daughter of her own. Not surprisingly, Vera feels she has no real family and grows into a fiercely independent and street-smart girl. Her unsettled childhood has prepared her to adapt to a city and society in ruins. Vera begins shortly before the April 18 quake and follows Vera and her family and friends during a year that changes their lives.
While a scrappy and resourceful “orphan” is a well-worn character in historical fiction, Vera is always interesting. One of her first and best decisions is to head from her working-class neighborhood to Rose’s Victorian mansion in Pacific Heights, which she finds abandoned but only slightly damaged. Over the following weeks and months, she struggles to keep herself and her more proper “sister” safe in a lawless city, befriends some other survivors in the area and enters various mutual aid pacts, and attempts to locate Rose.
Vera is populated with memorable characters, including the imperious and cryptic Rose, her ruthless butler/driver/cook Tan, and a few girls from Rose’s brothel who become surrogate big sisters to Vera. Like Vera, they could have been predictable stock characters. But in Edgarian’s hands, they come to life with intriguing back stories and varied motivations. Watching Vera build relationships with the unorthodox adults in her life is one of the book’s richest elements.
The novel also features amusing portrayals of San Francisco’s glad-handing mayor, Eugene Schmitz, who is saved (temporarily) from a corruption trial by the fortuitous timing of the earthquake, and early tabloid celebrity Alma Spreckels, who married into the Spreckels sugar fortune and became an influential philanthropist.
This coming-of-age story about a young woman and a city that didn’t play by the rules is a satisfying read.