A chance wander through a museum exhibit on British Columbia’s gold rush several years ago sparked my curiosity in California’s own gold rush in a way 4th grade history class (not to mention decades of living in that state) never managed to do; over the next several months I visited a number of gold rush sites, reading countless interpretive signs, historical marker plaques, and tourist pamphlets. I even made it through a good chunk of the massive Days of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the American Nation.
But wow, the events depicted in the fictional In the Distance by Hernan Diaz bring entirely new levels of insight and compassion to the varied and challenging realities people must have faced in those times, both externally and internally.
That said, this book is about so much more than the Gold Rush. I highly recommend it.
I decided to read In the Distance based on Roxane Gay’s review on Goodreads:
One of the best books I’ve read all year. The story, and the narrative voice is completely captivating. …the story itself and how it is told is absolutely unforgettable.
Fortunately for me, this book is part of Auckland Library’s vast e-book collection, and now I too can claim In the Distance as one of the best books I read in 2018.
The protagonist musters a surprising ability to face a range of often unfortunate conditions with equanimity and honor, while continuing to forge ahead with his seemingly-impossible quest. (In this sense he reminds me quite a bit of the convict in William Faulkner’s The Old Man, which I also loved, and which has also stayed with me quite strongly.) I was amazed at Diaz’s ability to convey interactions, landscapes, and objects through the eyes of someone who had never experienced anything like them before. Beginner’s Mind indeed!
Meanwhile, the author’s rich descriptions of San Francisco Bay, the the Sierra foothills, and deserts of America’s West, though unnamed and from a much different time, evoked more than a little nostalgia for places I know and love and am not sure when I might visit again.
Weeks after finishing it, this book still has me thinking about how we invent Purpose for ourselves. About the fine line (or is it attitude?) that differentiates Solitude from Loneliness. About those moments when we decide to Stop, and the moments when we have to Keep Going, even though we don’t want to. About Taking Stands when faced of inevitable suffering, and about Resignation when faced with the same. About Identities, both those that we choose, and those that get thrust upon us despite any desires we may have to set the record straight. About Learning, Curiosity, and Knowing, and how characters whose Obsessions are a few degrees more intense than our own serve as excellent mirrors. About Difference and Immigration. About unconsummated love and about that incessant Longing for something that lies just over the next horizon… if not even farther away.