In the July 1845 issue of the Democratic Review, an editorial urged “the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” It’s believed to be the first time the expression “manifest destiny,” a staple of high school history papers for over a century, ever appeared in print.
The phrase doesn’t show up as such in Jonathan Evison’s epic seventh novel, Small World, but its presence—and its role within American immigrants’ and Native Americans’ destinies, spread across three centuries—is woven into every page.
There’s Amtrak executive Jenny, whose great-great-great-grandfather was a Chinese immigrant and forty-niner who parlayed his gold into intergenerational wealth; budding basketball player Malik, son of a single mother and descendant of an enslaved man; abuse survivor Laila, whose Miwok ancestor internalized white people’s cruelty; and retiring train conductor Walter, whose Irish forebear was on the crew that drove the golden spike that connected America’s coasts by rail in 1869.
In fact, it’s Walter’s 2019 train crash that kicks off the odyssey, as the engineer tries to imagine the lives of his passengers and “what circumstances, what decisions, had delivered them all to that moment.”
As Evison tells the tale of America through immigrants’, Native Americans’ and their descendants’ eyes, readers are treated to seemingly unrelated vignettes that jump back and forth across time and space. Piece by piece, Evison successfully corrals this sprawling history into a cohesive whole, coalescing it into a vivid mosaic.
Part of the reason this 480-page book seems like a novel half its girth is Evison’s ability to drop the reader into a scene. You can feel the bone-rattling lurch of a wagon carrying its hidden human cargo to freedom. You can smell the pinewoods as a young couple seeks a place to build their nest in the Sierra foothills. You can taste the congealed oats at a Dickensian orphanage. You can revel in the dreams of a young athlete on the verge of greatness.
Throughout it all, Evison underscores a sense of a shared America, not so much in the kumbaya mythology of the melting pot but a feeling—oft-neglected these days—that we are all in this nation-building adventure together. That’s a destiny worth manifesting.