As war gathers in the United States in 1860, a train is hijacked in Panama, bringing disparate personalities together as hijackers, hostages, lawmen, and innocent bystanders are all drawn into a violent, life-or-death drama.
Emmy Evers, her children Sarah and Jacob, and their Native caretaker Jojo are going back to Emmy’s family home in Boston after tragic events in the Pacific Northwest that left Jacob traumatized and Emmy a widow. They board the new Panama Isthmus railroad, along with companions who include Italian revolutionary agitators and traitors, an escaped slave turned ruthless slave owner, a young Army surgeon deeply attracted to Mrs. Evers, a magnate transporting substantial quantities of miners’ gold…and a criminal mastermind named Rafael Bocamalo, plotting the hijacking of the century. When Bocamalo and his gang succeed in derailing the train, taking hostages, and escaping with the gold, a pursuit begins that will show each of these disparate characters in their truest light, forcing some to come to terms with their flaws and driving others into deeper darkness.
ISTHMUS, a sequel to the author’s previous Widow Walk, is a historical novel as rich and vibrant as the jungle in which it takes place. The historical context is subtly drawn through the thoughts and backgrounds of the characters, without too much need for distracting digression. There is, however, a small but useful set of notes at the end for those readers who wish a bit of factual background. Characters are solidly and complexly portrayed, with a perceptive eye and a deft hand, giving them substantial and coherent histories and personalities. Their interactions are believable, sometimes touching, sometimes heartrending, but never bland. It is easy to get to know these people, become immersed in their lives, and care about their fates. The plot is more cerebral than one might expect from the active premise, but it remains engaging nonetheless, and it is difficult to put the book down, once opened, until it is finished. The only flaw noticeable in this book is the regular use of the word “discrete” where “discreet” is obviously intended.
ISTHMUS is a time machine of a book, bringing Civil War history vividly and forcefully to life with lively, three-dimensional characters and a lush jungle setting.