Same Ground: Chasing Family Down the California Gold Rush Trail by Russel Wangersky

Same Ground is my first reading of Russell Wangersky’s work, and I selected it for the travel connection. I had enjoyed Thomas King’s fictional account of a couple tracing an ancestor across Europe using a series of postcards in Indians on Vacation, and looked forward to reading this non-fiction account of a quest.

This quest is about finding family and one’s place in family, not by simply tracing the route but by connecting with the traveller. Soon, I found myself immersed in this story of past and present, told with such awareness and intensity.

“It’s almost like a physical shudder, every time it happens. Every time I can know for certain, for absolute certain, that my feet and his are on the same ground, that my eyes are staring out at the same line of horizon, that the dust is, at least to some measurable degree, the same dust.” (166)

In 1849, William Castle Dodge set out for the California gold fields, recording his adventures and insights in a diary. Dodge looked forward to wealth that would bring comfort to his family, but he was unprepared for the harsh realities of the trail. There is a growing sense of homesickness and discouragement in Dodge’s writing as illness, lack of supplies, lack of values of some travellers, and deaths along the trail mount. The longing for home and family grows.

160 years later, inspired by that diary, his great-great-grandson Russell Wangersky, with his wife Leslie Vryenhoek, set out on their own journey over the same ground. Excerpts from the diary, which they read as they travel, are interwoven with the main narrative, making Same Ground a fascinating study in past and present, inviting us to see the differences, and also the similarities, between then and now.

The author does warn that he has not edited the journal, allowing it to maintain the attitudes of Dodge’s time. Journal references to the Indigenous populations focus on expectations of attack and thefts of mules and oxen at night. The shooting of one Indigenous person is described almost as an afterthought to the shooting of a bison.

Wangersky reflects that these viewpoints continue in contemporary times. He points out that very little, if any, attention is given to the Indigenous populations in the historical sites they visit, and that, lamentable as the deaths of so many 49ers are, their thousands do not come near the 120,000 Indigenous deaths directly related to the gold rush.

He imagines how the Indigenous populations felt as the crowds of immigrants pressed across their land, and reflects on the resistance the descendants of these immigrants feel toward new waves of migration. Why are some immigrants regarded as heroes and others as invaders? Why is some graffiti history, and other graffiti defacing?

These modern travellers are able to purchase what they need, fill their water jugs, pack their snake bite kits, and often sleep inside. They drive a rental vehicle, which, even with its leaking tire and low clearance, is not like coaxing a dying mule through mud or ash. It is not like journeying for days seeking water, wood, and grass.

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Wangersky’s travelogue focuses on the memorable – the oddness of travel attractions such as the slag pour, the best and worst features of accommodations, the stories and the characters of motels and bars, and the special quirks of washrooms. He relates their own adventures with dry wit – his wife stalking off to confront staff about the lack of attention to Indigenous matters, or his retelling of the fate of Caribou Jack, for example. As a traveller, I have always found that these were the features of the trip that stood out for me, and their experiences raise memories.

We are moved to laughter at times, but also drawn to think deeply about what we value, what we discard, and who we are. His descriptions look into the experience, not the tour expectation, and in his personal reflections, we can recognize our own journey.

Same Ground emerges as a rich and dynamic story of family, in which Wangersky draws his own conclusions about what defines family and home through his travels. The author balances description of colourful sights, personalities, and moments, with reflections on culture, migration, and values. His prose is vivid and honest; his insights invite the reader to probe deeply into the values of culture and family that shape us.

For those who travel to learn and to grow and not just to see, for those who acknowledge the complexity of family and life, and for those who look for a well-told story, this is a fascinating read. The companion book club guide is sure to generate some memorable conversations.  (https://ecwpress.com/blogs/book-clubs/same-ground-book-club-guide)


Russell Wangersky is the multiple-award-winning author of seven books of fiction and non-fiction, including Burning Down the House, Whirl Away, and The Hour of Bad Decisions. Formerly a columnist with the SaltWire newspaper chain, he is currently editor-in-chief of the Saskatchewan Postmedia newspapers. He lives in Saskatoon, SK.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ ECW Press (Sept. 27 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 368 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1770416544
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1770416543

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