Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1445
A baby in a wicker basket is left on the doorstep of the British Import and Export Company in Valparaiso, Chile, on March 15, 1832. Rose Sommers—an unmarried sibling of Jeremy Sommers, a prominent member of the company—decides to adopt the baby, whom she finds irresistible. With the consent and support of her brother, Rose names the baby Eliza and raises her in the austere British tradition, with all the privileges and strict discipline common to a nineteenth century, upper-class British family.
As part of her Victorian upbringing, Eliza is taught the English language and learns to play the piano, two skills that will benefit her greatly in the future. Eliza’s upbringing is also very much influenced by Mama Fresia, the Native Chilean servant and cook in the Sommers household. Mama Fresia teaches Eliza the native art of cooking and exposes her to the traditions and practices of the Mapuche tribe, thereby allowing Eliza to experience both worlds and both cultures. This bicultural upbringing is advantageous to her as she grows from childhood to adolescence and as she begins her travels to a different world.
Blessed from birth with an almost photographic memory and a keen sense of smell, Eliza becomes an accomplished cook, skillfully blending the gastronomic practices of the Indian and British cultures. Eliza’s memory is prolific and almost magical: She is able to remember, with utmost clarity, lying as a baby inside the discarded box of Marseilles soap that served as her first crib. She remembers Miss Rose bending over her cradle and even recalls the color of the dress that Miss Rose was wearing at the time.
Eliza’s adolescent years are punctuated by ambivalence toward the circumstances of her birth: On one hand, Miss Rose tells her that she must have been left by wealthy British colonists because the basket in which she was found was constructed of the finest wicker and adorned by a mink coverlet, both outward signs of lavishness theretofore unimaginable in Chile. On the other hand, Mama Fresia informs her that she was found in a crate, wrapped in a man’s sweater and without a diaper. She further tells the child that had Eliza not been blessed with blond hair at her birth, Miss Rose and her brother Jeremy would not have adopted her. Eliza quickly realizes that the topic of her birth is not to be discussed in the Sommers household, and she rapidly becomes accustomed to the almost mystical and mythical nature of her origin.
As Eliza matures, her acute sense of smell is sharpened, as is her extraordinary ability to remember even the most obscure items and occurrences in her life. Eliza’s life is uncomplicated and normal, and she enjoys the process of maturation and growth, although even at this early stage her independent personality and character become apparent. At the age of sixteen, she falls desperately in love with Joaquin Andieta, a modest clerk who works for Jeremy in the British Import and Export Company. Andieta lives with his mother in abject poverty and expresses anxiety for her well-being. Eliza’s family is shocked by Eliza’s love for Andieta, whom they consider uncouth and unsuitable for her. Her independent streak is demonstrated when she has an affair with Andieta and becomes pregnant by him.
In 1849, news of the discovery of gold in California reaches South America, prompting many Chileans to migrate to California to seek their fortune. Andieta decides to join the California gold rush, hoping to make his fortune and to free himself and his mother from the cycle of poverty. A few months after his departure, Eliza, who is very much in love with him, decides to follow him to California so they can be together. She stows away on a ship and is helped in this adventurous and difficult voyage by a Chinese doctor named Tao Chi’en who befriends her...
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