The View from Half Dome: A Novel

Image of The View from Half Dome: A Novel
Release Date: 
May 6, 2023
Black Rose Writing
Reviewed by: 

This historical novel about the mighty Yosemite National Park starts off in a place about as far as possible from the park’s natural beauty. The story begins in 1934 in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco when the area was a blighted slum during the Great Depression.

The heroine of this tale is teenager Isabel Dickinson who lives—or actually, barely survives—there with her mother and little sister Audrey. Her father is dead, leaving Isabel’s mother to fend for herself. She works as a maid and gets money each month from her oldest child, her son James who is working for the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps, in Yosemite.

Isabel is bright but she’s not immune to the temptations of being an impulsive teenager. Her desire to spend a few moments kissing a boy in her class plays a part in the traffic death of her younger sister. Haunted by guilt, Isabel cannot bear to tell her mother or anyone where she was or what she was doing when she should have been watching Audrey.

The guilt eats away at Isabel and that, along with her mother’s pestering and world-weary attitude, prompts Isabel to run away from home. Trying to fulfill Audrey’s wish to visit older brother James, Isabel heads for Yosemite. After caging a ride, she arrives and meets up with James.

Isabel has no plan and doesn’t even know if she’ll even be able to spend one night at the park. By the time she gets there, she is down to her last dollar bill.

But in the shadow of Yosemite’s great beauty, Isabel’s luck finally changes. She meets an older woman named Mrs. Michael who is based on an actual person—Enid Michael, who was Yosemite’s first female naturalist. In real life and in the novel, Enid lives in the park with her husband Charles, the assistant postmaster. Caugherty populates her novel with other real-life characters as well, including photographer Ansel Adams.

Mrs. Michael learns that Isabel is a good typist and even a better editor after the naturalist has her type up some handwritten notes. The older woman allows Isabel to move into their small apartment for a few days, but Isabel proves so useful that the stay stretches into the entire summer.

Like any tourist who sees Yosemite for the first time, Isabel is awed by the park, which becomes a major character in the book. Mrs. Michael introduces her to the wildlife and wild-flowers and schools her about the natural world around them.  

Little by little, the magic of the park overtakes Isabel’s soul. One morning, as she works in the garden and feels the breeze and hears the nearby songbirds, she realizes that she is feeling . . . good. “It took her a minute,” author Caugherty writes, “to identify the tranquil sensation as peace.”

Living amid the spectacular beauty of the park, it becomes more and more unimaginable for Isabel to even consider returning to the squalid conditions of her mother’s apartment. And it’s not only the conditions. Mrs. Michael is the opposite of Isabel’s mother, who has let life get the better of her. Mrs. Michael gives Isabel hope that there is another way to live, even for a poor girl from the slums.

“Mrs. Michael said, ‘I’ve learned you have to act like what you want to become. Convince yourself first, and others will believe it, too,’” the author writes.

Older brother James is supportive but encourages Isabel to return to San Francisco. She won’t hear of it but then, their mother writes that she’s lost her job and needs help. Isabel is caught between doing what’s right and doing what she wants.

This novel is engaging although parts can feel a bit melodramatic. Still, the essential story of this poor girl getting a reprieve from the slums to live among the wonders of nature is a winning formula and has enough plot to keep the reader rooting for Isabel. And of course, given the title, there is a long hike where Isabel scales one of Yosemite’s signature peaks—Half Dome.

It doesn’t hurt that the great photographer Ansel Adams is along for the ride. The actual characters help ground the story.