This book has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.
It is 1849 when 12-year-old Jack Flagg and his Aunt Arabella’s butler, Praiseworthy, stow away on a ship headed for California to join the Gold Rush. Aunt Arabella has been guardian to Jack and his sisters, Sarah and Constance, since their parents died of cholera years earlier. She has fallen on hard times and is about to lose her home in Boston. Jack and Praiseworthy know they are the only hope for saving the family.
Jack and Praiseworthy initially pay for passage on a ship called the Lady Wilma, but their tickets are stolen as they wait to board. They’re forced to hide in potato barrels in the hull until the ship is well on its way. Then Praiseworthy leads them to the captain’s quarters to tell him of their plight. Capt. Swain allows them to stay aboard and shovel coal into the burners until they can trick the ticket thief, a man named Cut-Eye Higgins, into admitting his guilt. Capt. Swain then gives Higgins the coal-shoveling job, until the thief escapes in a rowboat.
Jack and Praiseworthy meet many other interesting men on the Lady Wilma. Since everyone is anxious to stake gold claims in California, Capt. Swain races against another ship, the Sea Raven, around Cape Horn on a 15,000-mile, five-month journey. Despite water and fuel shortages and harrowing storms, Jack and Praiseworthy remain excited about their new venture. They also rejoice with the other passengers when the Lady Wilma beats its competitor to San Francisco.
Once in California, Jack and Praiseworthy discover that everything is quite expensive. They find creative ways to make money along the way, including cutting hair for miners (whose hair is full of gold dust the two can harvest). They catch up with Cut-Eye Higgins, who is posing as a dentist and extracting gold-filled teeth. Jack and Praiseworthy find themselves on a stagecoach with Higgins and urge him to return the treasure map he stole from a fellow Lady Wilma traveler. A gang of thieves attacks the stagecoach, stealing most of the passengers’ valuables. When one outlaw comments on Praiseworthy’s photo of Aunt Arabella, the butler punches the man, who lands 15 feet uphill. The outlaws get away, but the story of Praiseworthy’s punch grows like a tall tale. He soon earns the nickname Bullwhip. As they look for a claim of their own, Praiseworthy and Jack work with a man named Pitch-pine Billy on his claim in Hangtown. Billy gives them thick black coffee to drink, and Jack struggles to swallow it. Billy gives him the nickname Jamoka Jack. At an auction, Jack accidentally buys a barrel full of neckties. While such things seem useless there, he and Praiseworthy are able to sell them when a lady moves to town and the miners want to clean up to impress her.
Jack and Praiseworthy eventually have enough money to buy their own burro and search elsewhere for a claim. They promise to return to Hangtown, since a man called Mountain Ox has challenged Praiseworthy to a fistfight. While Praiseworthy has no formal training in fighting, he has pored over The Gentleman’s Book of Boxing: The Fine Art of Fisticuffs Explained and Illustrated.
The boy and butler once again run into Cut-Eye Higgins as he’s about to be hanged for horse theft. He promises to give them the treasure map if they will save him. Praiseworthy convinces the townspeople not to hang the only dentist they have, and Higgins gives them the map, which turns out to be useless. The Justice of the Peace still orders Jack and Praiseworthy to dig a grave for Higgins, since he will need it eventually. As they dig, they strike gold and stake their claim.
Once their claim dries up, Praiseworthy and Jack return to Hangtown where Praiseworthy bests the Mountain Ox in boxing. He and Jack take a steamboat to San Francisco, but an explosion sends them overboard. All of their gold sinks to the bottom of the sea. Penniless, they are still determined to return to Boston. They seek out the Lady Wilma and find it abandoned and teaming with cats. When they hear about the town’s rat problem, they realize they can sell the cats. With almost $400 in their pockets from cat sales, they wander along the wharf to find passage home.
Suddenly, they spot Aunt Arabella and Jack’s sisters. The young women have sold everything in Boston and come to find Jack and Praiseworthy. Finally seeing himself as a brave miner rather than a timid butler, Praiseworthy asks Aunt Arabella to marry him. She says she thought he would never ask. The five walk happily up the wharf, becoming a new family in a new land.
Praiseworthy is a clever yet humble man who puts Jack’s and Jack’s family’s needs above his own. Aunt Arabella has earned the love and admiration of both Jack and Praiseworthy. She forfeits her house full of memories and personal comforts to join them for an adventure in California.
Capt. Swain is a skilled captain, along with being just and merciful. He allows Praiseworthy and Jack to stay aboard his ship and shovel coal until the thief who stole their tickets is found. Then he gives the thief the coal-shoveling job. Capt. Swain races against another ship, the Sea Raven, around Cape Horn on a 15,000-mile, five-month journey. His leadership and skill allow his ship, the Lady Wilma, to arrive first in San Francisco.
A Frenchman uses the Lord’s name in vain in his native language.
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