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Summer of Pearls

by Mike Blakley

Publishers Weekly : Homespun western charm flavors Blakely's slim historical fiction about one of the many "pearl rushes" that occurred between 1850 and 1910. Ben Crowell is 14 when his riverboat town of Port Caddo, Tex., erupts with pearl fever the summer of 1874, a season that also experiences a mysterious murder and the town's inevitable decline. Ben's tale begins when a riverboat explodes and a heroic stranger named Billy Treat saves Ben's life. Billy then settles into town, as does Judd Kelso, the cruel captain of the steamship whose engine blew. Suave Billy and vulgar Judd join young Ben in being infatuated with lovely Carol Anne "Pearl" Cobb, so nick-named because she trades sexual favors for the irregular and discolored pearls found in local freshwater mussels. No one guesses they are worth anything until Billy, a one-time pearl trader, introduces Pearl to Captain Trevor Brigginshaw, a burly international gem buyer who sets off a rush when he purchases her collection for $3,000. Treasure hunters barrage Caddo Lake, bringing business to an old-fashioned town and attracting the notice of a Pinkerton detective. Accused of skimming off the top, Brigginshaw goes to prison, only to be freed by a flood that literally sweeps him and Billy out of town. Pearl, heartbroken for Billy, now needs protection from Judd, and Ben is just the lovesick boy for the job. When Judd ends up with a knife in his chest, Port Caddo is left to ponder who killed him. Seven decades later, the nostalgic Ben, now an old man, treats readers to the romantic but perfectly pat answer--a less suspenseful but dependable denouement. Blakely (Too Long at the Dance; Comanche Dawn) offers an easy, sentimental read, though some of his ambitious 19th-century gem seekers lack the luster of their best finds. (Sept.)

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