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Fiction

October 12, 1986|Judith Chettle

THE RIDGE OF GOLD by James Ambrose Brown (St. Martin's: $17.95; 328 pp.). Driving north through the brown hills of the high veld, one comes upon the city of Johannesburg suddenly, as if in a mirage: a fitting image, perhaps, for a place that owes its being to something as vain and treacherous as the gold discovered on its ridges--the Witwatersrand--a hundred years ago, and mined still thousands of feet beneath the sprawling city.

James Ambrose Brown's "The Ridge of Gold" is a historical novel of the period when men and women of all races, from as far away as California and Australia, flocked to Ferreira's camp, "that first untidy sprawl of canvas." The book, naturally enough, is not concerned with the present South African crisis, but gold is the bright treasure that has and continues to cast such a dark shadow over that county.

Johannesburg was one of those rare mining camps that made the transition to something more permanent. Usually when the lode runs out, the fancy women, con men and dreamers move on. Johannesburg came close to this fate, and the novel is essentially about how the city was saved by the discovery of a chemical process which made deep mining profitable, and many of the heroes and villains of the novel very rich.

The story moves at the breathless pace required. The characters are many and diverse: Scottish doctors, American engineers, cockney prostitutes, and East European Jews who meet, mingle and mate in the improbable ways characteristic of the genre. A roistering introduction to a city of continuing interest and importance.

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