The Bibliophile explores the ideas of duty, knowledge, and the freedom to be found in being seen and appreciated for who and what you are. As the only son of the Idaho territory’s “Silver Baron”—a man who “insisted the world be shaped in his own image,” it is Nathaniel Goldsmith’s duty to fulfill his father’s plans and to cement the family name into the growing country’s history. As a self-made man who began his fortune with back-breaking work in the mines, Nathaniel’s father has little patience and no respect for “the learned.” Feeling he has indulged his son long enough in allowing him to go away to school for four years, he sees sending him to work with Cayuse Jem, the rancher who trains Appaloosas, as an expedient and overdue way to make Nathaniel a “real man.”
As Nathaniel learns to appreciate life on the ranch, makes friends with Motsqueh and Chuslum (members of a nearby Nez Perce tribe), and as the realities of rural life in a western territory become tangible actualities, he learns not only how to merge his book and experiential knowledge into something useful and fulfilling in his and Cayuse’s daily lives, but also his place in the world and the potential to make his own destiny.
“Why understand the nature of a thing if one cannot alter it?”
“So you may love it.”
As a bibliophile, it is Nathaniel’s nature to understand, learn, and explore the worlds opened to him from the pages of books. In his experience, everything he could ever need to know and want can be found there, and his father’s own lack of understanding and respect for the knowledge gained from others is shortsighted and ignorant. Yet, as his summer on Cayuse Jem’s ranch goes on, Nathaniel learns to appreciate learning and experiencing life first hand, and that not all knowledge worth having can be fully encapsulated in the pages of text. At a glance, Nathaniel believes that the taciturn, hard man Cayuse Jem appears to be makes him a man like his father, but Cayuse is the polar opposite. Where Nathanial’s father is a bully who enjoys breaking others under his will, Cayuse believes in nurturing and empathy, and as Cayuse has “all of [his] Father’s strength but none of his brutality,” he quickly captures Nathaniel’s admiration and heart.
The story is told from first-person POV through Nathaniel’s journal entries, a format that some may not like, and does have its shortcomings. For the most part, it works well for the time period, the characters, and the story. As a scholar who cannot speak the Nez Perce language and is thrown into an unknown environment, having Nathaniel chronicle the daily chores of ranch life and his encounters gives the story a more accurate and believable feel. Additionally, Frayne does a good job portraying the emotional magnitude of events in the narrative within the format.
The only time this format may pose a problem for some readers is that we only see Cayuse through Nathaniel’s eyes. Given Nathaniel’s inexperience, how differently Cayuse treats Nathaniel compared to Nathaniel’s father, and how the contrasts make him feel, without having an internal perspective from Cayuse, depending on how feels about daddy/boy dynamics, some of the dialogue, particularly towards the end, may come across more like grooming rather than an equal relationship between adults. Overall, The Bibliophile is a well-written and enjoyable historical romance.