Sin & Grace traces the development of Skagway and the lives of a number of real historical folk from the winter of 1898 to the winter of 1917. The “sporting years” of the subtitle refer to the era when saloons and red light districts were a prominent, and somewhat tolerated, feature of the little town’s social life.
Based as it is on real people and real events the book has an interesting feature in that the author attempts to pin down certain dates. Her method is to present us with a series of vignettes. There are several plots running through the novel, but the chapters have specific dates, and subsections within chapters often bear parenthetical notations like “thirteen days later” or “two months later”.
In one of the few longer sequences, the book starts out on February 16, 1898 and stays on that day for the entire chapter. Chapter two, however, picks up the story “three years and two months later”.
In that first chapter we meet a number of the key players in the larger story. Tuck Flaharty and his brother, Flick, came north with the stampeders, headed for Dawson, looking for gold. It is on their way through town that they first encounter the sporting life of the saloons and scarlet women.
We later learn that Tuck made a small fortune and took it home to his poor family in the lower 48, choosing to return to Skagway, where he worked on the White Pass and dreamed of the day he could own and run a saloon. And where he could spend at least some of the year with Essie Miller
Essie is destined to become the most influential madam in the red light districts, but at this point she is just one of the girls. She sees Skagway and its fondness for the sporting life as a way out of the trap she’s been in since she was a young girl. She is very good at her trade, but too daring in her public flirtations, too quick to advertise her wares and availability.
An entirely different kind of woman is just arriving in Skagway. Anna Stinebaugh is as straitlaced and puritanical as they come. It’s hard not to see her as one of the villains of the novel, and yet the things she will try to achieve - better education and political power for women - do actually improve the town, even while she works tirelessly to close down the brothels and saloons. The problem with her methods is that she has to set aside New Testament Christian charity for Old Testament judgment, and to do that you have to mortgage a piece of your soul.
Sin & Grace is also subtitled Book One of the Si Tanner Chronicles. Tanner is, at various points in the story, a city magistrate, councilman, state legislator, mayor, and U.S. Marshal. Si is the power behind all the other powers in Skagway for much of the period covered in the book. There is more to be said about him.
The only real villain in the story is an invented gent named Hans Schneider, who stands for a number of nasty fellows who might have been like him: a woman beater, a snake, a man who thinks he can do just as he likes. He learns different over the course of the novel.
There are several story arcs in this book and they all take a long time to come to fruition. There’s the slowly evolving love story between Tuck and Essie. There’s the interplay of politics in the town and the state. There’s the slow but steady erosion of acceptance of the sporting life and the inexorable collapse of saloon and brothel culture.
Spude worked for the National Park Service for thirty years and has written a number of historical articles and archeological monographs on subjects related to Skagway, but decided that writing a novel would give her more of an opportunity to lay bare the soul of the place. While the book seems at times to wander in a limbo between fact and fiction, it was an engaging read and I would be interested to see what else she might have to say about the place. Maybe there will be a book about Si Tanner?