What was it like to be in California in 1851?
Well, it was three years after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, and three years after gold was discovered at Sutter's sawmill.
It was one year after California had officially become a state.
The population of California was just less than 100,000 people (there are 400 times that many people in Californa now!!)
There were no cars, no trucks, not even really any roads, nor any railroads (the Sacramento Valley RailRoad Company would be founded the next year, in 1852). Even the Pony Express was still eight years in the future.
The first overland Postal Service route from Salt Lake City to Sacramento had just been inaugurated, without much success ("In November 1851, Woodward and his mail party left California for Salt Lake City. They never made it. Woodward’s body was found the following April, but no mail. ")
Insofar as they got around at all, people travelled by boat, by foot, or, most commonly, in ox-carts or horse-drawn wagons.
What was it like to be in California in 1851? I have no idea! I can barely imagine it.
Happily, though, Patrick DeWitt CAN imagine it.
What's more, Patrick DeWitt is an extremely talented writer, and his The Sisters Brothers is a tremendously entertaining romp through what California was like in 1851.
The Sisters Brothers are Eli Sisters and his older brother Charlie Sisters, a pair of outlaws under the employ of the mysterious "Commodore", who lives in Oregon, and who has dispatched Eli and Charlie on a task.
The book is narrated by Eli, and is related in such an engaging and lyrical style that words fail me in describing how much fun it was to read this book.
Now, be warned: this is not easy stuff! Life in California in 1851 was no picnic, and for Eli and Charlie it was considerably harsher than for most. There are incidents, accidents, gamblers, prostitutes, amputations, vats of radioactive chemicals, and more.
There are tragedies and bodies strewn about almost every page.
But it's like this:
We climbed out the window of my room and snuck along the overhang that ran the length of the walkway. This proved handy to us, for Tub and Nimble were housed in a stable at the far end of Mayfield, and we covered that entire distance without a soul noticing our travels. At the halfway point, Charlie paused behind a tall sign to watch the largest trapper leaning against a hitching post below us. Now the other three joined him, and the group stood in a loose circle, speaking through their dirty beards. 'Doubtless they are infamous among the muskrat community hereabouts,' said Charlie. 'But these are not killers of men.' He pointed at the leader. 'He is the one who stole the pelt, I'm sure of it. If we come up against them, I will take care of him. Watch the rest take flight at the first shot fired.'
The Sisters Brothers is now a movie.
I'm sure it's a good movie; it could hardly not be!
But, really: don't bother.
Read the book.