Aware that the admired historical novel is separated from the disdained bodice ripper merely by the ratio of war to romance, Cecelia Holland's 17 books are solidly grounded in fact but enlivened by generous lashings of love. In each one, she manages to keep the proportions hovering around a safe 70-30, assuring herself both the respect of her peers and the affection of her publisher.
In "The Bear Flag," she presents close-ups of the early history of California by inserting a vibrant fictional heroine into a cast of the actual people who shaped the beginnings of the state. John Charles Fremont, Kit Carson and John Augustus Sutter appear in their entirety, though Holland succeeds in stripping all three men of the rosy auras that have settled around their heads.
Other major figures in the battle for autonomy also turn up under their own names, their reputations for good or evil conscientiously re-examined. To avoid redundancy and reduce supernumeraries, the author has combined an arduous 1841 pioneer expedition over the Sierras with the Fremont crossing of 1844, taken a few small liberties with the dates of the Bear Flag Revolt and the California Rising, and melded two Spanish officials--Flores and Carrillo--into one brand-new fictional creation called Jesus Orozco.
With the Russian fur-trading settlement at Ft. Ross in mind, Holland has also invented Count Sohrakoff, not because the story needs royalty, but because the heroine, Cat Reilly, needs a lover. (Widowed when her young husband was killed falling into a gorge, she's been on her own for 50 pages.)
These few minor distortions aside, "The Bear Flag" is a lively refresher course in the origins of California, accounting to some extent for the significant and persistent differences between this state and the rest of the country.
Holland reminds us that California wasn't settled by dour Calvinists, but by a motley collection of people either fleeing Northeastern constraints, or, in the case of the Spanish adventurers and the various soldiers of fortune, never exposed to those notions in the first place. As a result, attitudes here were more liberal from Day 1.
Catherine Reilly, she of the tossing black curls and blazing green eyes, belongs to the former group. She eloped from Boston with her ill-fated bridegroom after her parents forbade a marriage between a Brahmin's daughter and an Irishman with no means of making a living except for a sketch pad and pencil.
After one passionate but furtive love scene in their covered wagon, Reilly vanishes forever, leaving the sadly diminished pioneer party to struggle across the brutal landscape until it is providentially discovered by Fremont and Carson, who renames Catherine "Cat." While he shows more than a flicker of sexual interest, he's too much the wild mountain man to be our bodice-ripper.
He leaves Cat at Sutter's Fort with a curiously contemporary sounding "Hey, Babe, you ain't done with me yet. I'll be back." And of course he is, many times, but by then Cat has had her emotions reawakened by the enigmatic Russian Sohrakoff, who isn't a count, but is the most complex and subtle character in the book.
Romantic necessities thus disposed of, the rest is solid history, as the beleaguered settlers attempt to fend off the autocratic Spanish militarists and the voracious land grantees as well as the glory-seeking Americans determined to annex California to the nascent Union.
Succumbing to the standard genre cliches when she's describing the obligatory scenes of frontier passion, Holland is splendid at recounting the sights, sounds and horrors of hand-to-hand combat and cavalry charges and re-creating the sort of small-scale war that no longer exists except in historical romance.
Carefully researched and portrayed in intimate detail, the tableaux of 19th-Century life in Monterey and Los Angeles lend considerable substance to the tale. In the course of the frenetic action, our Cat rapidly evolves from a tragic widow to a prime mover in the organization of the short-lived Bear Flag Republic, the entire transformation taking a mere three years.
THE BEAR FLAG by Cecelia Holland Houghton Mifflin $19.95, 423 pages
Next: Carolyn See reviews "Voyage to the Red Planet" by Terry Bisson (William Morrow).