Goldsmith Jones is a historical fiction novel, set in the summer of 1863 San Francisco. The American civil war is its third year. San Francisco is currently experiencing a second wave of immigrants heading west for the new Gold Rush. Unfortunately, all the gold land has been bought up, and so there are a lot of disappointed men wandering around getting robbed, getting drunk, gambling, fornicating, and so forth. In this oceanside town, with the docks filled with ships from China, South America, Australia and other parts of the world, living shoulder to shoulder with high flying business men, and low-down ‘gutter-hogs’ are the youth sex- workers and pickpockets trying to cut a living like everybody else.
Life in the old Wild West is hard. There is an urban tale about a wagon party on the Oregon Trail. After most had been killed by Native Americans who did not care for them intruding on their land, they took refuge in the hills. Too terrified to continue their journey, the remaining trailblazers resorted to cannibalism. The last survivor it seems died alone in the rocks from starvation. This story doesn’t fact-check well. It seems an exaggerated tale written at a time when Native Americans were made to look particularly vicious, and weekly journals featuring contemporarily offensive content were beginning to make lots of money for the people printing them. But, it gives you an idea of how nail-biting even thinking about going west was at this time. And how hard it would be venture back, once you were there.
Regardless of what country or state you come from, all newbies to San Francisco are called immigrants. The first thing you find when you get here is that a gold nugget the size of a well-fed banker is not laying in the river waiting for you to pick it out. The second thing you learn is San Francisco is the most expensive place you’ve ever been to in your life. Third thing: while you were busy thinking- you’ve just been robbed! The gold rush, combined with the fact that California is a free state and therefore a law unto itself, means that the crazy-high price of a loaf of bread yesterday may not be the crazy-high new price it is today. Either way, you still can’t afford it. During my research, I discovered the price of a week at a hotel in the city was at one point, $1500. This is a number I’d expect to see in the ‘you pay for 7 nts’ section of my online booking to Majorca. All in all, the unstable economy would have a knock-on effect for the residents, and visitors to the city, where you could charge extortionate amounts of money for something that might be practically worthless tomorrow.
Moving over to the ‘red light ‘ part of town where the novel takes place: The shortage of women means that female sex workers easily charged $20 or $40 an hour. Rumour has it some female sex workers have been lucky enough to find high-ranking husbands, perhaps due to the rarity of them being women living in a nearly all-male environment. Male sex workers historically earn less than females. Boys, who again are globally and historically used within the sex trade, are paid the very least. Here is the situation of my main character- he is at the bottom of the rung. And he is desperate for a way out.
Food is a big priority for ‘immigrant’ and possible Confederate traitor Jones. Even in a ‘Garden of Eden’, food becomes a scarcity if you can’t afford to buy it. I came across a period photo of San Francisco that showed a pier jam-packed with men holding fishing rods catching a cheap meal. A time newsprint ad mentioned ‘fresh killed meat’. Not words we see advertised at the local high street butchers today. But that’s why people in the 19th century California went hunting. Only hunting takes skill, and if you don’t have that skill, perhaps you utilise another ability: to steal; to sell whatever you have that someone might want; to get close to someone who’ll provide you with something to eat, no matter what. One thing for sure, between starvation, the gangs, the disease, the deadly cheap alcoholic -you’re lucky if you survive at all.
~ Sam Taylor – Pye
Fourteen-year-old Goldsmith Jones is left stranded in crime-ridden, gangland territory. He finds himself living at The Shades, a home to local street kids. While selling sexual favours down the Dead Man’s Alley to survive, Jones is charmed by a seaman he knows as Sweet Virginia. Moving further away from the relative security that The Shades and his best friend, Raccoon, offered him, Jones is drawn ever closer to the manipulative Sweet Virginia. When Raccoon falls gravely ill and is taken to convalesce on the rural Rancheria, Jones is left under the controlling powers of the unscrupulous navvy. Swindled and wrongly accused, he is unexpectedly rescued by the leader of the villainous Suarez Brothers, the charismatic Saul. Faced with a choice between becoming Saul’s ‘little brother’ and saving Sweet Virginia’s life, Goldsmith Jones must embark on a dangerous journey which will change his young life forever.
Sam Taylor-Pye grew up on the border between Washington state and British Columbia, Canada and currently lives in Kent in the UK. She received her BA from the Open University and has an MA in Creative Writing. This is her first published novel.