It is Halloween. The crowd that gathered for the Tour of Untimely Departures has dispersed. But reporter Murphy Gardiner finds herself returning to the pioneer cemetery, chasing a runaway cat. There she meets Anji Lee, a native Oregonian of Chinese descent who is visiting the grave of Simeon Small, fulfilling an old family tradition to pay homage to this unknown man who is revered like an ancestor. Murphy is intrigued. Before long, she embarks upon a yearlong adventure that takes the reader on an absorbing ride – from contemporary genealogical research to Portland’s early years as a growing town.
At the book’s historic heart are three characters struggling for a measure of freedom. Simeon Small is born in Pennsylvania with a name ripe for ridicule and a body to match. By 1870, he is sexton at East Portland’s Lone Fir cemetery, making daily visits to the nearby Asylum to see his wife. Emerson Asher, an aspiring writer and suffragist of Irish and Jewish heritage, grows up on the west side of the Willamette River with a father who inspires her free spirit. Zhou Zhen is a Chinese girl sold by her parents in Guangdong and forced into prostitution in the strange land called Oregon. Their lives collide in unconventional ways, hidden from future generations.
Their story is an intricate puzzle rich in historic detail, but at its core, it is a tale of human connection that reaches across the artificial boundaries of gender and race.