57 pages • 1 hour read
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Daughter of Fortune, first published in Spanish in 1998 (Hija de la fortuna), is the fifth novel by celebrated Latin American writer Isabel Allende. The winner of multiple awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Chile’s National Literature Prize, Allende created this work of historical fiction, in part, to explore the impact of feminism on her own life. Daughter of Fortune tells the story of a young woman, Eliza Sommers, and her odyssey of self-discovery as she travels from Valparaíso, Chile, to Gold Rush-era California in the 19th century. The English-language edition of Daughter of Fortune, published in 1999, was translated by Margaret Sayers Peden. A sequel, Portrait in Sepia (2000), traces the life of Eliza’s granddaughter.
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Eliza’s origins are shrouded in mystery. She was abandoned as a baby on the doorstep of the home of Jeremy and Rose Sommers in Valparaíso, Chile, in 1832. Brought up by Rose, a spinster, and Rose’s merchant brother, Jeremy, who immigrated to Chile from England, Eliza learns two different stories about her ancestry. Rose informs Eliza of her fine English lineage, while Mama Fresia, Rose’s cook, tells Eliza that her heritage is Chilean Indian. Under Rose’s influence, Eliza dresses like a duchess, speaks English, sings, dances, and reluctantly learns to play the piano. However, in the kitchen with Mama Fresia, Eliza runs barefooted, speaks a mixture of Spanish and Mapuche (an indigenous South American language), listens to Indian legends, and learns how to cook. Eliza also meets the Sommerses’ brother, John, a sea captain, who brings intriguing gifts when he returns from his voyages. As Eliza grows up, it is important to Rose that she marry into a good position and acquire all the necessary social graces. Instead, Eliza falls in love with Joaquín Andieta, a charismatic, but impoverished, shipping clerk who works for Jeremy’s British Import and Export Company.
Aware that the Sommers family would not consider Joaquín a suitable marriage choice, Eliza conceals her love affair with him. When news of the California Gold Rush arrives in 1848, Joaquín views mining as his only way out of poverty and his only hope of proudly being able to ask for Eliza’s hand in marriage. Shortly after Joaquín leaves Chile, Eliza discovers that she is pregnant and, without her family’s knowledge, heads for the Valparaíso port to find a way to obtain passage to California. Not long before, she was introduced to the Chinese cook, Tao Chi’en, from her Uncle John’s ship. Eliza happens upon Tao at the port, and he helps her become a stowaway on a ship that is heading for San Francisco, California. During the voyage, Eliza has a miscarriage and nearly dies. Tao takes care of her through the ordeal, using his knowledge of acupuncture and other ancient remedies acquired during his apprenticeship in China to become a zhong yi (traditional Chinese physician). The spirit of Tao’s deceased Chinese wife, Lin, urges him to save Eliza from death because a young woman who stows away in the depth of a ship in order to find her man in another country must have much qi (life force).
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Upon arriving in San Francisco, Eliza discovers it is a frontier town populated almost exclusively by males. Still weak from her illness, Eliza begs Tao to help her locate Joaquín. Feeling that he cannot abandon her there, Tao passes Eliza off as his younger brother and disguises her in men’s clothing, giving Eliza an unfamiliar sense of freedom. They search for information about Eliza’s elusive lover in the Chilean community in San Francisco and then sail up the river to Sacramento. Tao is repelled by the crime and greed in California, but he avidly learns about other healing practices from the nomadic Native Americans and the Mexican ranchers. As Eliza and Tao spend more time together, they develop a cross-cultural friendship.
Back in Valparaíso, Rose and Jeremy are shocked by the disappearance of Eliza. The secret of Eliza’s origins is finally revealed by Rose when her brother Jeremy states that the family has no obligation to find Eliza. Rose had conspired to conceal from Jeremy the fact that Eliza is the illegitimate daughter of their brother John. Eliza is the result of an affair John had with a Chilean woman whose name he has forgotten. Rose is convinced that Eliza has gone to California in search of Joaquín. John is newly employed as a captain of a steamship transporting Chilean produce packed in glacier ice to San Francisco. In California, John meets his old friend, Jacob Todd, who has changed his name to John Freemont and works as a newspaperman. John asks Jacob to try to locate Eliza, since he often travels to the mining camps.
As Eliza acquires her strength again, she becomes impatient to continue the quest for Joaquín. Tao wants to settle in one place so the spirit of his dead wife, Lin, can find him. Eliza earns enough money selling empanadas (meat pies) to buy a horse and travel supplies. Leaving Tao in Sacramento, she disguises herself as Elias Andieta, the younger brother of Joaquín, joining a group of miners heading to the placer deposits. Traveling around the Mother Lode section in California, Eliza encounters dangerous and eccentric characters, such as Joe Bonecrusher, the madam of an itinerant bawdy house. There are possible leads as time goes on, but she does not find her lover. In the wide-open landscape, Eliza begins to believe that she can start her life anew. While in the mining region, Eliza writes letters to Tao, who is working in San Francisco’s Chinatown to save enough money to return to China.
Eventually, Tao persuades her to return with him to San Francisco, where he is on a mission to rescue young females who have been imported from China and forced into prostitution. As San Francisco develops into a more settled city and California becomes a state in the Union, Tao and Eliza live and work together, but their relationship remains platonic. Eliza does not abandon her quest to find Joaquín, but she no longer desires him as she once did. She has started to feel love for Tao, yet she needs closure regarding Joaquín’s fate. Jacob Freemont, the newspaperman, writes articles about an outlaw named Joaquín Murieta, who may be Joaquín Andieta. Eliza visits Jacob Freemont’s office, still disguised as male, to ask if Jacob knows the whereabouts of the mysterious Murieta. After she leaves his office with her question unanswered, Jacob realizes that he was speaking with Eliza, and he informs his friend John Sommers that she is alive in San Francisco.
The famous Irish actress Lola Montez arrives in the city and inspires Eliza with her fearlessness. On her own, Eliza decides to write to Rose to let her know that she is alright. The leader of a government-authorized manhunt claims that he has killed Joaquín Murieta and preserved his head in a jar of gin. Eliza goes to see the exhibition of Murieta’s head to find out if it could have actually been Joaquín Andieta who was shot. She and Tao openly walk arm in arm together through the streets. California continues to grow, as does Eliza, who leaves her false male self behind, becoming a self-assured woman in a completely new world.
By Isabel Allende