Cannibal Eliot and the Lost Histories of San Francisco
by Hilton Obenzinger
Hilton Obenzinger is an American original. His lost histories are acts of legerdemain and cunning – mixing truth and imagination in ways rarely seen before. Cannibal Eliot is a wonderful, profoundly entertaining book.
Obenzinger now offers stories from San Francisco’s colorful past, superbly twisting fact and fancy in a delightful, memorable concoction. . . Vivid, poignantly reconstructed moments in history – all rendered with wit and a keen eye for the quirks of human nature.
The book is actually a series of short stories that begins with the arrival of the first Spanish missionaries and ends with the tale of a looter in the great earthquake and fire of 1906. Obenzinger presents the narratives in the form of “documents” recently rediscovered in the little-known “Victor Archives,” founded by the entrepreneur Mrs. Frances Fuller Victor.
Thus linked, and depicting as they do San Francisco’s evolution from mission settlement to thriving city on the brink of becoming what passes for civilized, the stories accumulate the power of a coming-of-age novel, with San Francisco as the rash young hero.
Each of Obenzinger’s documents – mostly in the form of diaries and interviews – is marvelously authentic. He not only captures the rhythm of the speech of different eras, but also manages to tell each one with the voice of a different, and distinctive, narrator. . .
Cannibal Eliot is a loving but honest tribute to a city that, even now, in its tamer middle age, continues to capture the imagination of the world.
San Francisco Chronicle
Hilton Obenzinger has given us a brisk, raffish, fond but clear-eyed tour through one hundred and thirty years of San Francisco’s tumultuous past, told in the lives and voices of the people who shaped it – not the empire builders (although Charles Crocker adds his burly presence), but Wobblies and prostitutes and felons, a “Female Typesetter,” a Spanish sergeant, and the ghastly Dennis Kearney. The great 1906 earthquake offers Obenzinger as dramatic an ending as any writer (or reader) could wish, but the entire novel is made up of vivid incident underpinned with scholarship and glittering throughout with flashes of poetry, just as the city it celebrates offers its people blue flashes of bay at the ends of its astonishing, perpendicular streets.
—Richard F. Snow
Editor, American Heritage