For less than one minute on the morning of April 18 1906, San Francisco was shaken to its core. Buildings crumbled, fires raged and most of downtown was destroyed. Carol Edgarian’s recent novel “Vera” brings readers to that time and place.
Blending history with a coming-of-age story, the immersive book chronicles the ’06 earthquake and its aftershocks, and by its end, we come to admire both Vera, the eponymous protagonist, and the citizens of San Francisco for their gritty resiliency in the quake’s aftermath.
In the first two pages, Vera, more than 100 years old, recalls how the quake changed her life. She begins her story on her 15th birthday, nine days before the earthquake.
Vera is looking forward to seeing her mother, Rose, with whom she does not live. Rose is a famous San Francisco madam who operates a bordello in the bawdy Barbary Coast. When Vera was a toddler, Rose arranged for Vera to be raised by a widow, Elsa Johnson. In return, Rose pays household expenses for Elsa and her daughter Piper.
Minutes after the shaking stops on April 18, further waves of catastrophe shatter The City. Elsa is crushed to death by a falling wall while Vera and Piper escape encroaching fires.
The narration includes intricate details of how Vera and Piper survive those next few harrowing days. The City’s infrastructure has been decimated. Gas and electric lines are broken, water cisterns are cracked, and fires threaten almost every city block. A parade of evacuees flees from downtown to the western part of The City, where refugee camps are eventually established at Golden Gate Park, the Presidio and Lafayette Square. San Francisco looks like a war zone.
Vera eventually rescues her biological mother, Rose, under a pile of rubble in her Barbary Coast bordello and arranges for her to be transported to a hospital. Vera, as she starts to take care of Rose, tries to understand her enigmatic and remote mother.
Vera grows up quickly and joins forces with one of her mother’s loyal employees, a Chinese man named Tan. Like The City, Vera is determined and tenacious to move forward. As San Franciscans abandon social norms to focus on survival, Vera begins to imagine a different life for herself. She encounters looters and luminaries, heroes and hucksters as she learns to navigate this troubled world.
With ease, Edgarian weaves historical characters into the story, including San Francisco Mayor Eugene Schmitz, who faces charges of bribery and extortion, and whose indictment is delayed due to the upheaval. Vera and Piper are friends with the mayor’s daughter, giving readers a personal perspective of the famous scandal.
In “Vera,” the coming-of-age story is less compelling than the historical narrative. I struggled with Vera’s voice when her interactions with adults seemed implausible. Yet the novel succeeds as historical fiction. Edgarian’s meticulous research is impressive. The book is filled with countless facts and details about the quake’s effects on The City’s political, military, architectural and financial life.
Both the 1906 quake and massive 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake were seismic events that linger in the foggy mist of The City’s collective memory. A wary acceptance of the possibility of another quake remains part of San Francisco’s ethos.
“Vera” is a reverent ode to the resiliency of San Francisco and her people. If you wonder what it might have felt like to be in the 1906 earthquake, “Vera” is a great place to start.
Katherine Read blogs about books at readsreading.blogspot.com.
BOOK NOTES: Vera
Written by: Carol Edgarian
Published by: Scribner
Note: At noon Tuesdays, Edgarian shares thoughts on life and writing inspired by a single word on Instagram: @CEdgarian.