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Review

The Reckoning of Boston Jim: A Novel

By Claire Mulligan

November 4, 2013

Review By Jocelyn Smith

In the aftermath of the Crimean War, Eugene Augustus Hume resigns his commission. Later, hearing the casual remark that the charge of the Light Brigade was unnecessary, Eugene thinks to himself “The whole war was unnecessary … The whole war was full of human error. It was foolishness that masqueraded as courage and best not spoken of” (70). When he leaves the army, an elderly relative offers to pay his fare to the goldfields of British Columbia if he promises never to return to England. “She then made a promise herself, which was to feed any letters from him to her hounds” (216).

Eugene accepts at once and, when The Reckoning of Boston Jim opens, he is spending his last night in Victoria before crossing to the mainland and continuing by paddlewheeler up the Fraser River and then overland to Barkerville. Eugene knows that he has a gift for judging when a revelry is about to turn sour, but as we follow him along the mule trail we find that he has other gifts too: a dry sense of humour and a resilient faith in the future despite what must strike his companions on the goldfields as crushing proof that the future will be grim. He also has the knack for a pretty turn of phrase and has mastered the art of letting down gently; when the owner of the hotel in Victoria invites him to spend the night in her room, Eugene is repelled. “‘My principles will not allow me to compromise your reputation,’ he [replies], but with resignation and regret, as if his principles were grim, unyielding relatives” (19).

If conversation and sociability smooth Eugene’s path through life, how tortuous must be the life of Boston Jim himself. He is taciturn, almost mute, ill-educated, gruff. His moral compass leads him in conflicting directions. Without a moment’s forethought, he rescues a young girl from certain danger and tries to give her a good life and hope for the future. Yet in an earlier incident, when the chief trader of a Hudson’s Bay Company fort denies Jim the £315 in wages that he has earned during his years of clerking and translating and fur trading, Jim organizes a massacre of the fort and all within it, simply so that he can force his way into the building’s strongroom and take his wages. The massacre is “the only way Boston could think to get what is rightfully his” (271).

It is hard to imagine what could bring these two men together, yet a young woman does. Dora Timmons emigrates alone, from London, and finds work as a servant in Victoria. She soon falls in love with Eugene and agrees to marry him. Before they can marry, though, Eugene must find gold in the Cariboo. One morning, while Dora waits for him to come back to the Island, she comes across a pouch that Jim, passing through on his way to Cowichan Bay, has dropped moments before. In it is the money that he had taken from the strongroom. Jim wants to reward Dora’s honesty in returning the pouch with something that will mean the world to her. As he listens to Dora tell her life’s tale, he understands that what she wants more than anything else is Eugene’s return. And so he determines to follow Eugene to Barkerville and bring him back. The novel is thus divided into two parts. The first describes the three characters’ lives before their paths intersect, and the second describes Boston’s search for Eugene. The end of the search will be abrupt and shocking.

Claire Mulligan, a native of Kelowna, is best known as a short-story writer. The Reckoning of Boston Jim is her first novel, and it is a wonderful début. Mulligan writes with compassion for her characters and a sharp, trustworthy eye for detail. Nobody can say for certain how life really was in the Colony of British Columbia in 1863, but Mulligan convinces us that she knows. Her descriptions of interiors and street scenes, of people’s speech and clothing and manners, are reminiscent of the finest passages from Alice Munro, and her sense of humour is as dry and pleasing as Munro’s. In a passage about the companions with whom Eugene searches for gold in Barkerville, Mulligan writes of Langstrom, a Swede who speaks little English: 

Langstrom is the best shot of them all and as well the best cook. For these reasons they recently agreed that he should spend a half-portion of his time hunting instead of mining. Any gold would be shared equally with him, of course, just as if he were digging himself. It took some time to convey this plan to Langstrom who from their gesturing thought perhaps that they were threatening to shoot and eat him. But it has paid off. Though they are never full, they have not starved, and now and then there is enough gold scratched from the claim to buy some beans, flour, sugar even (230). 

So deft is Mulligan’s touch and so skilful is her writing that the larger themes of the novel – love; loss; human error, courage, and foolishness; the randomness of life – enhance and never overwhelm what remains, throughout, a sensitive and first-rate piece of storytelling.