Gold Rush Girl

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
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Great characters, perilous adventures in historical tale.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Set in 1848, Gold Rush Girl is packed with historical detail about the Gold Rush-era in San Francisco -- everyone living in tents, the streets a soup of mud, sanitation nonexistent, and plenty of crooks preying on unwary souls with gold fever. And a forest of abandoned ships, many still buried under modern-day San Francisco, that plays a crucial role in the adventure. Along with Tory, the reader will pick up some Spanish from her kind neighbor Señor Rosales, who takes the kids under his wing. Many readers of today will be surprised at some historically accurate perils, such as people being drugged and kidnapped as crew for ships that couldn't attract their own, and the fact that a Black family in San Francisco did not dare take a ship home to New York for fear of being taken to a Southern port and sold into slavery. Enlivened by Tory's dauntless quest for knowledge, the narration uses language and phrasing typical of the era, including lots of words like "mortified," "onerous," and "perplexity."

Positive Messages

Strong messages of family, friendship, looking out for your loved ones, and not being limited by others' perception of you. Also courage, kindness, hard work, and hard-earned wisdom about how there might be such a thing as too much adventure and freedom.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Fourteen-year-old Tory is impulsive, independent, and hard-headed, but also hard-working, serious, practical, and devoted to her family (who she frequently winds up supporting). Inspired by Jane Eyre (which she thinks is an autobiography rather than fiction), she strives to imitate her heroine's strong will, good mind, kind heart, and virtuous soul. She shows great bravery and responsibility in looking out for her little brother, and is a loyal friend to Sam and Thad, boys her age who help her in her quest.  She doesn't always make the right choice in the stressful heat of the moment, but realize her mistakes and tries to make them right. Thad works hard as a store clerk and gambles most of his earnings away, but also teaches Tory to row and is a steadfast companion. Sam, a Black kid about their age, comes from seafaring folk in New York; his musical and boat-handling skills make all the difference in their quest. He also faces additional dangers because of his skin color -- while slavery's against the law in 1848 California, there are always people willing to drag a Black person to the South and sell them into slavery. Señor Rosales, their neighbor in San Francisco, is kind and protective, trying to keep the kids out of trouble in the absence of their parents. Tory's father is well-meaning but fundamentally spineless; her mother is in poor health and bullied by her own elder sister, but also supports Tory's determination to have a less imprisoned life.


Tory's little brother is kidnapped by a criminal gang, in league with the police, that sells its victims to unscrupulous ship's captains as enslaved crew. The older brother of another character was kidnapped by them and has not been seen since. Drunken brawls, fights with weapons, and threats of physical harm are a constant dangers as human predators prey on their unwary victims. Tory hears pistol shots and sees a dead man being carried from a saloon. A Black family is tired of gold fever and wants to go home to New York, but it's risky because in 1848 they could be kidnapped and sold into slavery.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

It's the Gold Rush in San Francisco, where saloons line the streets, drunks abound, and miners lose their hard-earned gold in gambling establishments. Smoking, drinking, and gambling are constant. The teen protagonists don't smoke or drink, but one of them, who has a job, is caught up in the gambling scene.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Gold Rush Girl is Newbery Award-winning author Avi's tale, set in 1848, of a 14-year-old girl who escapes the stuffy life and her stuffier aunt in Providence, Rhode Island, by stowing away on the ship that's taking her jobless father to the gold fields of California. Seeking to emulate both the independence and the goodness of her heroine, Jane Eyre, Victoria (Tory) winds up being quickest to adapt to the precarious life in San Francisco. The city is full of gamblers, drunks, and criminals, but, not being afraid of hard work, she's soon supporting herself and her younger brother. Then her brother disappears, and she learns that he's very likely been kidnapped by the owner of a gambling house, who drugs his victims and sells them to departing sea captains as enslaved crew. She and her newfound friends face a lot of danger and deal with a lot of dangerous characters, but also find support and kindness from better souls. The story delivers a vivid sense of the day-to-day reality of the time and place, from the dark streets and stinking mud to the spooky fog that holds ships in its grip. Along the way, Tory, who's never lacked determination, also learns a lot about balancing your responsibilities to your loved ones with the need to take your own path.

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What's the story?

It's 1848 in Providence, Rhode Island, and 14-year-old Victoria (Tory) Blaisdell, soon to be GOLD RUSH GIRL, is already determined to escape the proper, mindless life in store for her there. Her rich aunt controls all their lives, so her younger brother goes to school and Tory doesn't. However, her mother teaches her to read and write, she quickly finagles a library card, and her world expands. When her father loses his job, Tory largely supports the family doing sewing work. But when word comes that gold has been discovered in California and riches are there for anyone who comes to get them, Tory's father (whose critical thinking skills were never the best) gets gold fever and, along with young Jacob, is soon on a seven-month voyage to San Francisco. Unbeknownst to him, but supported by her mother left behind in Providence, Tory stows away and goes along. Before long she will face quite a lot of unexpected challenges in San Francisco, which isn't exactly a city of gold -- and then, after their father has left for the gold fields, her brother disappears.

Is it any good?

Avi brings the Gold Rush to life in a tale of a book-loving, adventure-craving teen escaping a bleak future as a proper young lady in 1848 New England by stowing away on a ship to San Francisco. Gold Rush Girl  Tory is an appealing hero, independent-minded and determined to go her own way, but also determined and brave in looking out for her loved ones. A few plot developments may be a bit too convenient, and some readers may not love Tory's fondness for using every big word she ever learned, but there's plenty to cheer in a fast-moving tale full of atmospheric description, historic detail, and swashbuckling adventure.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how the Gold Rush is portrayed in Gold Rush Girl.  What did you learn about it that you didn't know before? Do you think you would have liked to be in San Francisco at that time? Would you have looked for gold or found a job? What other stories have you read or watched that were set in that era?

  • Tory's not allowed to go to school, but she doesn't let that stop from reading and learning. Are you or anyone you now learning outside of school now? How is that different from taking classes in person? Are you learning as much or even more?

  • Have you read other books by Avi? How do you think Gold Rush Girl compares?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love strong girls and historical fiction

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