A masterful work of historical fiction that charts a deeply compelling romance set in the Pacific Northwest during the fascinating but under-reported second half of the nineteenth century. Award-winning author, Janet Oakley brings us another exceptional work from her heart, Mist-chi-mas: A Novel of Captivity.
It is 1860 and Washington Territory is rich with a diversity of cultures. British and American military camps are posted on San Juan Island, both groups awaiting the decision of an international committee as to which country will be awarded the land. It will take more than a decade for the committee to determine what is to be the water boundary between Washington and British Columbia.
Although a previous incident involving a shot pig almost instigated a war, at the start of the Mist-chi-mas, the two military encampments are respectful of the other’s turf and co-exist well. There’s a bit of society in the area, ladies’ teas and picnics take place, and plenty of business dealings due to the ubiquitous presence of the Hudson Bay Company.
In addition to the relative newcomers to the Pacific Northwest are the native peoples, a number of Indian tribes, the Haida, the Saanich, and the Songhees peoples, as well the “Kanakas,” the Hawaiians who have been here since the early nineteenth century. Attitudes toward the native peoples vary, with some being appreciative of their contributions to the shipping, trading and lime works industries, and others being condescending or outright violent towards them.
The history of this area comes vividly to life through the romance of a widow, Jeannie Naughton, and Jonas Breed. Jeannie is the niece of the Scotsman, Archibald Campbell, a major representative of the Hudson Bay Company in the Pacific Northwest, and has arrived from England with her young son. Her reasons for beginning life anew in a foreign land are mysterious and mired in scandal.
In contrast, everything is known about Jonas Breed, a man whose ethnic heritage and experiences reflect the geography and culture of the region. The orphan of an American trader in the South Pacific and a Welsh mother, he grew up speaking English and Hawaiian. As a youth, he was captured by the Haida and was made a “mist-chi-mas,” a slave. After several years of servitude, he saves the life of his captor and his status changes. He is grateful for all he has learned from the Haida, and when he asks for his freedom, it is granted. The Haida respect and trust him.
Breed’s closest companions and friends are members of the tribal peoples, and he will prove his love and loyalty to them repeatedly. He’s as at home on land as he is on water, reads Ralph Waldo Emerson, and is certainly the most self-reliant character in the book. He may remind some of Natty Bumpo, James Fenimore Cooper’s hero in The Last of the Mohicans.
The Americans and the British generally regard Breed with great admiration, although there are those who envy him and seek his downfall. In turn, someone threatens Jeannie with his knowledge of her hidden past. Despite this, Jeannie and Jonas find love but also tremendous danger at every turn. Jeannie comes to understand the truth of Breed’s words, “We are all mistchimas.” Some are enslaved by external forces, some by inner forces. Their relationship will prove to be as complicated and compelling as the historical events of the novel.
J.L. Oakley deserves tremendous recognition for the clearly exhaustive and meticulous research she did in writing Mist-chi-mas. With writing so clear and vivid, Oakley brings time and place to life leaving readers captivated by her craft. She invokes the mountains and the waters with such descriptive beauty and fully creates her characters against this panoramic landscape that challenges and shapes them.
Can love blossom between the most unlikely pair in a multi-cultural, tension-ripe environment? Author J.L. Oakley breathes life into an often forgotten part of Pacific Northwest history in her beautifully penned novel, Mist-chi-mas: A Novel of Captivity–destined to be a regional classic.