Set in the years 1847-1851, during the time of the California gold rush, the novel has the scale and ambition of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. It uses a sliver of American history, portrayed vividly and in depth, to deal with down-to-earth human themes. And it’s easily an equal of McMurtry’s novel—often superior to it.
Plot. You get two main plots for the price of one in Sierra, and they only briefly touch each other. One is a love-at-first-sight story of the daughter of a Californio ranchero and a young volunteer just discharged from the Army at the end of the Mexican-American War. The other tells of a newly married Iowa farmer who crosses the continent to look for gold in California, leaving behind his pregnant wife.
The volunteer, Stephen Jarvis, and his novia, Rita Concepción, are star-crossed lovers. Neither speaks the other’s language, and her family is dead set against him. Hoping to put together enough money to marry, Jarvis takes a job at Sutter’s Fort in the Sacramento valley. By chance, he is on a crew building a sawmill for Sutter when gold is discovered in the streambed of the millrace.
|49er panning for gold|
The Iowa farmer, Ulysses McQueen, has a much different story. Little more than a boy on an adventure, he has a grueling experience from almost the moment he leaves home. Death from disease, accident, and misfortune wait at every step of the way, and he arrives in California too late to make an easy fortune. Meanwhile, he puts off writing his wife back on the farm until she wonders whether he has died. She finally sets off to find him.
That takes you midway into this richly detailed novel. And Wheeler builds considerable suspense as obstacles mount up, preventing the happy reunion of both couples. Meanwhile, we meet a host of characters who inhabit the novel’s teeming social fabric.
Story and history. One achievement, among many, is the way the novel illuminates and enlivens a moment in time already fixed in place by national myth. Wheeler immerses the reader in a tumultuous period of history, at the time of a convulsive leap ahead in economic, political, and social change. His characters are being swept along by forces far beyond their understanding, chief among them their own desire to get rich quick.
Not only are characters unaware of their place in history. They know so little of their own present. The novel reminds us of the length of the news cycle before the advent of electronic communications. Mail delivery is sporadic, and they must wait months for letters to travel between East and West. Characters rely heavily on word of mouth, which may or may not be reliable.
The collective view offered by history transforms in Wheeler’s writing into the individual and personal. While we get a general view of history in the making, the focus is on four characters whose lives and fortunes are being shaped by it. Like people living in any time, they are specific and not generic, a combination of personality and circumstances given to themselves and to nobody else.
|Advertisement for travel to California by clipper|
Greed has made Dobbin a man without scruple. He’ll stop at nothing to keep others from getting to the gold fields before him. Jarvis watches as greed has a similar effect on one of the men panning for gold with him. The man becomes combative and distrusting, even at his own expense.
The matter of trust figures as a recurring theme, as McQueen and Jarvis each have trouble finding men whose friendship and loyalty they can count on. Both McQueen and his wife, Susannah, learn that their upbringing has not prepared them to be good judges of others. On the long journey to California, Susannah discovers that the unmarried partner of a gambler is more selflessly generous than her God-fearing in-laws.
|San Francisco harbor, c1850|
The novel also concerns itself with the conflicts that arise with the need for independence. All four of its central characters strike off on their own in ways that would give pause to the risk averse. Both Susannah and Rita Concepción defy families determined to force their wishes on them. All four of the characters end up far from their origins by the end of the novel and content to be so because they are with the ones they love.
And in that way, love conquers adversity. Thinking back on the few short years that have transported him from boyhood to manhood, McQueen realizes that he is like his uncompromising father. Both men believe in hard work, honesty, and courage. But unlike his father, McQueen also values love and independence. And so, in him, the several themes of the novel coalesce.
|California gold seekers, Harper's Weekly, 1850s|
The narrative is told from the points of view of each of its four central characters, and it passes from one to the other, sometimes leaving us with agonizing cliffhangers. Needless to say, in Wheeler’s hands, the writing is clean, clear, and vivid. The tone is mostly matter of fact, while the characters register a broad range of emotions from dread to elation.
Sierra is currently available in paper at Barnes&Noble and for kindle and the nook. Also at AbeBooks. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, head on over to Patti Abbott’s blog.
Further reading: BITS reviews of other novels by Richard Wheeler
Further reading: BITS reviews of other novels by Richard Wheeler
Image credits: Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: John Rose Putnam, Into the Face of the Devil
I can believe a love story with money. Lots of folks seem to be in love with that substance. :)ReplyDelete
But as you know, "money can't buy you love..."Delete
Wheeler does such a great job of telling history's story through he well drawn and fascinating characters. Thanks for the yet another review of a book worth reading. DorisReplyDelete
Thank you for this beautiful, penetrating review. You are a superb reviewer, seeing the themes and nuances and catching the author's voice.
Nice post, Ron. You're putting together a fine subset of Wheeler reviews.ReplyDelete
Ron, I enjoyed reading your review of yet another fine novel by Mr. Wheeler. I liked the emphasis on trust, loyalty, courage, honesty, friendship, and ethics amidst the greed and avarice usually associated with the Gold Rush. I also liked the character building aspect of the novel particularly against the historical backdrop.ReplyDelete
There is greed and avarice enough in the novel so that qualities of character show in even starker contrast.Delete
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