Panama is a fledgling country, born out of a revolution supported by the U.S., and now a canal is being ripped through the country. The setting is ripe for political corruption and intrigue, and into the maelstrom is plopped James Holt, a widower cowboy from the Dakotas. He’s all cowboy – he even toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Holt’s there on a personal favor for Teddy Roosevelt. The only thing certain for Holt is that he plans on getting home as soon as possible. But in the sweltering, mosquito-infested Canal Zone, nothing is certain anymore.
Holt finds himself assigned to find the missing mother of a little mulatto girl named Saffire. Other than her, no one in Panama wants this woman found. As Holt digs deeper into the underbelly of Panama, he is drawn into intricate webs of deception, political shenanigans, and, eventually, the arms of a woman who will change his life forever.
Brouwer’s command of language is such that the heat, humidity, and hum of insects in Panama resonate off the pages. Part history lesson – some characters are real, and their involvement in the Canal construction is nuanced – and part romantic thriller, Saffire delves into the real struggle to build the canal while interweaving a kidnapping and mystery story into the history lesson. It’s listed as a Christian historical novel, so fans of that genre may be disappointed that the only source of religious inspiration comes nearly 300 pages into the book in the form of a single paragraph spoken not by Holt, but by a nearly irrelevant dying character. In the end Saffire is a nice historical look at the Panama Canal construction mixed with a nifty little American Wild West cowboy drama-meets-thriller.
Originally appeared in: Historical Novels Review, Nov. 2016