I reminded myself that once you start to defend someone, it’s difficult to find a place to stop. But I went ahead and took that first step anyway. . .
For President Teddy Roosevelt, controlling the east-west passage between two oceans mattered so much that he orchestrated a revolution to control it. His command was to ‘let the dirt fly’ and for years, the American Zone of the Panama Canal mesmerized the world, working in uneasy co-existence with the Panamanian aristocrats.
It’s in this buffered Zone where, in 1909, James Holt takes that first step to protect a defenseless girl named Saffire, expecting a short and simple search for her mother. Instead it draws him away from safety, into a land haunted by a history of pirates, gold runners, and plantation owners, all leaving behind ghosts of their interwoven desires, sins, and ambitions; ghosts that create the web of deceit and intrigue of a new generation of revolutionary politics. It will also bring him together with a woman who will change his course—or bring an end to it.
A love story set within a historical mystery, Saffire brings to vibrant life the most impressive-and embattled- engineering achievement of the twentieth-century.
Goethals turned to me. “In the waiting room was a mulatto girl who comes here every Sunday, and every Sunday I turn her away because I know why she’s here. It’s her mother who has gone missing. She believes I can order the Zone policemen to look into it or influence the Panamanians to investigate. But circumstances dictate I refuse to interfere. First, she is a child, and finding the truth will eventually show her that her mother was a thief who abandoned her. And second, I can’t let it be perceived that I am taking an interest in matters that should be local. There is already enough resentment about American control of the Panamanian people. Third, there is a letter to the girl from her mother clearly explaining where she is going and why. Yet this is a persistent girl, and from what I understand, not without influence despite her station in life. Last Sunday, she sent me a note threatening to take her case to an American reporter if I don’t help.”
“Little blackmailer,” Cromwell said. “It would be very convenient if she disappeared too. Easy enough to arrange, except for the risk that more embarrassing questions would be asked. And for some reason, Ezequiel Sandoval is fond of the urchin.”
That’s when I first glimpsed the absolute steel in Goethals, because he spoke with the quietness of supreme authority.
“If she disappears, embarrassing questions are not a risk” -Goethals skewered Cromwell with a hard look- “but a certainty. And I would be the one asking those questions. Anyone who harmed the child would pay full price. You may well have the borrowed power of the governor of Panama, but I have the full backing of the United States and complete authority in all matters within the Zone until the canal is complete.”
Anther inch of ash had grown on Cromwell’s cigar, but he left it there, as if briefly paralyzed by the clear threat in Goethals’s statement.
“If you want to help me,” Goethals told me, “you’ll be helping the girl. Three or four days, I would guess, is all it might take. Start a search for her mother and appease the child, without letting her know that her mother abandoned her.”
I sighed. If only Mrs. Penny hadn’t used the word mulatto and if only I hadn’t seen the pain on the girl’s face that she’d tried to hide upon hearing that word, I would be walking out the door right now, into the tropical heat, headed for Panama Railroad train No. 2 and the steamship ready to depart Colón at nightfall.
One more day here, then. Maybe two. At most. “What do you need me to do?”
This was my first novel by Sigmund Brouwer, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I’m happy to say I became totally engrossed in Saffire – part historical fiction, part political intrigue, part suspense, and peppered with some of the most entertainingly droll conversations I’ve read in a long time!
Former Buffalo Bill cowboy, James Holt, has no idea why he has been instructed to meet with Colonel George Washington Goethals in Panama, but the money he has been promised for doing so will prevent the bank from foreclosing on his ranch. He fully intends to hear what Colonel Goethals has to say, politely decline his part in whatever the affair may be, and return to Colón in time to depart on the steamship sailing at nightfall; until a chance encounter with a young girl of mixed parentage, going by the name of Saffire (because a p and an h is such a silly way to make the f sound), changes everything, drawing Holt into the world of Panamanian politics and a beautiful woman named Raquel Sandoval.
The story is related in the first person by James Holt, who was as droll and laconic as he was intelligent, reflective, and entertaining. The latter particularly rose to the fore when Holt was in the company of Colonel Goethal’s meticulous but taciturn assistant, Miskimon, and I frequently had my children ask me, “What are you smiling at?” as I read this book!
There is, of course, a lot more going on in this story than the search for Saffire’s mother and some entertaining repartee. Even Holt is unaware of who is pulling his strings at times (and why), and the reader is buffeted along with him on a bewildering, and sometimes suspenseful, journey as he ruffles the feathers of Panama’s political and aristocratic power-brokers.
The historical details in Saffire were excellent, keeping the reader well grounded in the time period and bringing it to life. These days we take engineering feats like the Panama Canal in our stride, but Brouwer does an excellent job of recreating the sense of wonder and achievement it would have generated at the time. This was an age when telephones, cars, planes, and skyscrapers were in their infancy and, at one point, James Holt reflects: “We could fly, we could drive, we could send our voices across wire, and we could build monuments to the heavens. And in this time of wonder, nothing was more wondrous than what was unfolding around me – the connecting of the oceans, proof that there was not much left for humans to achieve. I thought about future generations that would look back and see the pinnacle of human achievement behind them. I felt sorry for them. Who, after all, enjoys knowing the best is behind them?” If only he knew!
And the love story? It certainly didn’t dominate the novel, but in the words of Holt himself, “There was tension. Of the delicious sort.” And I’m still smiling about the ending. Perfectly laconic!
Highly recommended if you enjoy the mix of history and a good story.
I received a complimentary copy of this novel through Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.
Buy from US: Amazon
Release date: 16 August 2016
Author’s website: http://www.sigmundbrouwer.com/saffire