Author: Sigmund Brouwer
Publisher: Waterbrook Press
Release Date: August 16, 2016
Reviewer: Jennifer S. Roman
Panama in the early 1900s is a flurry of activity after the United States starts building a canal there. It will connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and will provide strategic military positioning for the US. Work is hot and backbreaking as teams of laborers complete this historic undertaking. James Holt, rancher from the unsettled US Dakotas territories and former Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show entertainer, is called to investigate some people and questionable actions in the Culebra area of the Canal. He plans to stay one or two nights and then head back home to his daughter in the Dakotas, but a series of strange events keeps him there longer than anticipated. The most intriguing and compelling event comes in the form of Saffire, an orphaned young woman who appears at the administrative building every week to ask someone to look into her mother’s mysterious disappearance. Every week, she is turned away. Undeterred, however, Saffire turns to Mr. Holt. While doing his other work, he promises to look into her mother’s disappearance. His promise quickly turns into a dangerous situation as he is beaten, shocked, and almost poisoned to death in his quest to learn the truth.
The story unfolds as James learns the lay of the land and tries to figure out what he is doing here and why he doesn’t just turn around and go home. More importantly, he tries to understand why a lowly rancher from the Dakotas is summoned to Panama to investigate something that could be handled internally. Along the way, he meets several government employees who bring credence to the oxymoron of “government efficiency.” He socializes with a German adventurer out for a great tall tale and a local woman who, despite being wealthy, spends her time helping pregnant prostitutes set up a new life for themselves. He runs into Saffire here and there and sees how well-regarded and highly disliked she is at the same time. His search for the truth leads him into some interesting and incredibly dangerous situations, where his stubbornness proves to be a double-edged sword.
This is one of those books that takes a while to develop, but stay with it. I was about halfway through the book, wondering where it was going, when I finally saw it unravel into a fun yet dangerous adventure. Having the background knowledge presented from the first part of the book helps me to understand the second part, and while it seemed somewhat slow at first, it makes up for it later. The history of the characters and even of the country come to light in fascinating illumination, and the story picks up pace considerably. Characters develop and storylines tie together to create a magnificent book that highlights a historical event that not many people fully comprehend. The distinction between poverty and wealth is clearly demonstrated in Panama, highlighting government interference in every part of life.
This book is well-written and the characters were developed over time to create a world that could easily be envisioned. Scenes played vividly in my mind as I read them, and I had no trouble conjuring up the actions as they played out. The story itself, as mentioned before, takes a while to unfold, but the rewards are for those who stick with it. Readers of historical fiction and adventures should be happy with this book.
Saffire takes place in 1909 in Panama, where laborers work, eat, sleep, and repeat. Accidents are common and people die from horrific workplace tragedies, demonstrating the harsh conditions common in the time and place. Additionally, the government and wealthy people were frequently corrupt, and anyone who interfered was tortured, killed, or both. These acts are portrayed in the book to demonstrate the harshness of life. For these reasons, I recommend the book for mature readers.