Welcome to the Idaho Territory of 1872, where a boy and his father eke out a livelihood. If the winters don’t kill you, the claim jumpers might.
Novelist Dorris (Sheepeater: To Cry For a Vision, 2009, etc.) tells of Samuel (never Sam) Chambers and his father, Charles, who have come from Iowa to mine enough gold to return to and improve the farmstead, where Samuel’s mother and little sister wait. Samuel is 14, but he’s a mature, resourceful 14. Yet this beautiful if harsh land is unforgiving country, both in terms of nature and bad guys. He and his father work like dogs at their claims, only to have those claims jumped not once, but twice. There are decent people, too. On their horseback travels, Samuel meets the lovely Bonnie McCracken, and they fall in love. Samuel’s rival is the crude, treacherous Rex Callahan, a ranch hand at Slate Creek, but eventually, Samuel spares his miserable life, and Rex quits the territory. There are also many Chinamen in the territory; unsurprisingly, no love is lost between them and the whites. But Samuel has befriended them, especially another boy named Chen. Even Charles, a basically good man, grudgingly grants the Chinamen respect, but only on his son’s say-so. In a dramatic, hair-raising trek, Samuel and Chen elude but then face the claim jumpers, and later, Samuel and his father face even more claim jumpers. Dorris, a confident storyteller, writes notably well. He’s not afraid to dwell on detail as the coming-of-age tale slowly unwinds, keeping readers’ interest all the while. He knows gold mining, too, so readers should be prepared to learn a lot about placer mining, hard rock mining, assaying, and so forth. There are no cardboard cutouts here; even minor characters are well-drawn. In the end, the moral universe is put to rights, but—importantly—nothing comes easily.
An excellent read. Let’s hope there’s more to come.