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A Gold Rush tale grounded in fact

“Fortune’s Frenzy,” by Eilene Lyon, book jacket art by Frederic Roux, c. 1833, Library of Congress, pub. 2023 by TwoDot Press. (Courtesy)

Durango author Eilene Lyon’s new book, “Fortune’s Frenzy: A California Gold Rush Odyssey,” examines the California Gold Rush from the perspective of a struggling Indiana farm family. On the cover, a puzzling image appears: a ship about to capsize. One doesn’t expect a 19th-century marine painting on the cover of a book about the American journey westward.

“The overland trail has long captured the American imagination,” Lyon writes in her introduction. “But as more ships came into service in the Pacific, most traveled the route across the isthmus at Panama and Nicaragua.”

Eilene Lyon, author and genealogist, will talk about her new book, “Fortune’s Frenzy,” next week at the Rochester Hotel. (J. Reynolds/Special to the Herald)

Lyon is the next featured author to speak in the series sponsored by Maria’s Bookshop. At 6 p.m. Tuesday, she will be at the Rochester Hotel. The event is free and open to the public.

In this true story, published in 2023 by TwoDot Books, Lyon’s work is historical fiction based entirely on diaries, letters, memoirs and extensive research. An expert in genealogist studies, Lyon presents regularly on a variety of topics at national conventions and regional historical societies.

For “Fortune’s Frenzy,” a title Lyon said was chosen by her publisher, she tells the story of her ancestor, Henry Z Jenkins. He and a group of Indiana farmers borrowed money at extortion-level rates to make the westward journey and lift themselves out of poverty. In 1851, Jenkins and his friends sailed to California via Panama. A widened historical lens examines how American business practices took advantage of gold fever by promoting usurious loans. The impacts on the families and their futures adds to the breadth of Lyon’s storytelling.

“The cold calculus of transporting people to California became a deadly game for profit,” Lyons said.

If you go

WHAT: Author event and book-signing: Eilene Lyon “Fortune’s Frenzy: A California Gold Rush Odyssey.”

WHEN: 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday.

WHERE: The Rochester Hotel, 726 East Second Ave.

MORE INFORMATION: Visit www.mariasbookshop.com.

Her narrative style alternates between what happened to the men facing danger and disappointment with those left behind: wives, mothers and children. Lyon also illuminates the economic and social strains that beleaguered the country at mid-century before the great calamity of the Civil War.

In an Aug. 21 New York Times book review, W.W. Akers wrote: “’Fortune’s Frenzy’ recasts a pivotal American myth – that of rugged miners striking out to wrest their fortunes from the land – as a boondoggle, a con. It’s a reminder that since the country was founded, capitalism has been grinding people like Jenkins and Ranson into dust. Once upon a time, the dust was gold.”

Lyon, a polymath with expertise in several fields, holds multiple college degrees from the University of Cincinnati, Ohio State University and Fort Lewis College. She has combined longstanding interests in history, science and genealogy to become the professional writer and speaker she is today. Her 2007 FLC bachelor’s degree in Environmental Biology with minors in Chemistry and Geographic Information Systems led to work as a field biologist in Nevada and southern Arizona. From 2010 to 2019, she became an on-call field biologist for SWCA Environmental Consultants. In 2016, Lyon added writing and public speaking to her list of accomplishments and in 2018, she introduced her blog, Myricopia.com.

In a tight, well-written introduction, Lyon speaks to broader American issues: “The gold rush phenomenon upended America’s Puritanical work ethic: a lifetime of labor for limited gains. For the first time, citizens beheld an opportunity to achieve rapid prosperity.”

Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.