Wednesday, October 9, 2013

True gold

True gold can be found in the love of a good woman.

That, in a nutshell, summarizes Sierra, Richard S. Wheeler's entertaining 1996 novel about the California gold rush, which follows the trail of two men to the gold fields in the late 1840s.

Stephen Jarvis actually arrives at Sutter's Mill before the discovery of gold. He's a Mexican War veteran looking for his future when he spies a beautiful Californio girl. Although he and Rita cannot speak the same language, each is smitten with the other. He determines to makes a success of himself, then return to ask for Rita's hand. He finds enough gold to establish a business supplying goods to other miners and soon accumulates more wealth than all but a few of the gold seekers. Then he learns Rita has been forced to marry another man.

Ulysses McQueen already has a pregnant wife, Susannah, and a farm in Iowa when he gets gold fever. He leaves both his farm and Susannah in the care of his father and brothers, then heads for California with dreams of riches. He arrives after the richest gold strikes have already been made, and he struggles to make enough money just to survive. He has failed to write a letter to Susannah all this time, not wanting to write until he has good news to tell her. Meanwhile, impatient with not hearing any news about Ulysses, Susannah, with her baby, takes off to California to find him.

Wheeler specializes in the non-traditional western. That is, he writes more about the West as it really was than about gunfighters and train robbers. This may be why his books can be so hard to find, at least east of the Mississippi. I did find a few last week in a wonderful little bookstore in Jackson, Wyo. To me, that seemed like true gold.

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