The Day the Earth Stood Still

In her novel Vera, Carol Edgarian revisits the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.

vera, carol edgarian
Lucy Jenks

On the morning of April 18, 1906, San Francisco shivered, paused, then lurched violently as a great earthquake struck the San Andreas Fault: 7.9 magnitude. The resulting damage and subsequent fires left thousands dead and hundreds of thousands displaced. Fortunes crumbled along with many homes and buildings; new bonds formed in the middle of the mess. The calamity sits at the center of Carol Edgarian’s third novel, Vera, which tells the story of the unwanted 15-year-old daughter of San Francisco’s most successful madam as she searches for her mother and her own identity in the days before and after the city shook.

Edgarian talks Vera with Alta Live.

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Edgarian considers the earthquake an inflection point, a moment when social status and security were up for grabs. Her work contends elegantly and meticulously with historical detail, placing us at the center of a fateful event and allowing us to imagine how we’d respond. Because so much about those April days has been documented, Edgarian’s challenge is to unfold the timeline with suspense, at the same time giving us access to a wide swath of San Francisco social life. She succeeds by creating a life for her main character that straddles boundaries and permits her to move freely between classes as she crisscrosses San Francisco’s broken streets.

Vera begins with its title character’s taboo ancestry and humble upbringing: To protect Vera from growing up in a brothel, her mother, Rose, arranges for a Swedish woman to raise her daughter. Vera’s days with Morie (from the word mor, Swedish for "mother") and her daughter, Piper (“Pie” to Vera), are adequate if loveless. Rose sends cash, but there’s no tenderness. Vera and Pie are “sisters by arrangement, not blood.”

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In Morie’s sparse home, Vera daydreams about living with her mother, but Rose is more legend than kin. Then the quake hits, and Vera’s teenage restlessness is put to the test. Morie’s death in the disaster and the destruction of their home drive Vera and Pie to look for shelter. Vera also searches, less practically, to fill the mother-shaped hole in her heart.

Edgarian’s deep knowledge of the location and the historical timeline is evident in her acute depictions of the city and its real-life denizens, like Adolph Spreckels, Abe Ruef, and Mayor Eugene Schmitz. San Francisco before the quake twinkles with excess and the edgy energy of criminals and businessmen and artists. Vera gets a piquant glimpse of the Machiavellian upper classes at the opera:

The whole lot of them, lawyers and bookies and saloon keepers, were on the take or contributing to the take—this underground society of wheedlers and bargainers—all fed into and drank from the same filthy, civic trough filled with cash and favors and gold…. The game, I was beginning to comprehend, had to do with trying out words to hide deeds—words and more words till one fit, like a shoe or a hat, till the ends justified the means.

After the earthquake, San Francisco teems with inventive survivors. Some pillage the abandoned houses, while others find shelter outdoors. There’s a sense of collective suffering, but also of hope for opportunity and fortune. For many, like Rose’s former butler Tan, a Chinese immigrant, the quake disrupts the social order and allows them to pursue a better future. Rose has gone missing; the brothel is destroyed. Vera and Pie move into Rose’s unoccupied Victorian. There’s a place for anyone who can fill a need, and Tan sets to work feeding everyone in the neighborhood. “Anything could happen,” Vera quips, “and no one could ever be shocked again.”

As the head of Rose’s household, Vera fulfills her destiny: “I would never be a lady but I could be useful.” She adopts a practical identity. Her circumstance provokes some much-needed perspective, and she seizes the moment. “For fifteen years,” she recalls, “I’d been waiting for a catastrophe greater than my birth. The quake gave it to me.”

This is a novel about collective as much as individual rebirth. As she builds a new life out of the rubble, Vera welcomes others and devises a plan to sustain them. Rose’s well-stocked house keeps her safe and allows her to view San Francisco’s devastation from a distance. She walks through a world she calls “unborn,” observing:

Everything I saw felt peculiar and holy, the only holiness I have ever known. And if I say I looked for Rose with a good deal of dread in my heart at what I might find, it was also true that as I journeyed through the wreckage I felt lighter, even joyous. Later I could name it: I was no longer alone in my loneliness.

The star of Vera—sparkling with luxuriance and offering hope in the midst of devastation—is San Francisco, the great civic entity that reinvents itself time and again. Vera fancies herself a phoenix emerging from the ashes, a double for the city. “She was a girl too…,” she enthuses. “How perfect that her official seal is that of a phoenix rising. After she burned that sixth time, she was born again—headstrong and whimsical, careless as ever.”

Not unlike the young woman at the center of this book.

Scribner
Vera, by Carol Edgarian
Scribner Bookshop.org
$24.84

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