Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Took A While: "Sierra" by Richard S. Wheeler

Took A While: Sierra: a novel of the California Gold Rush by Richard S. Wheeler, 1996, 0312861850.

I commented online how I never got around to reading a Wheeler novel. Abbott, Sr. recommended this one. I'm glad she did because I was looking for a straight forward western with cowboys, six-guns, horses, rustlers, nasty cattle barons, etc. I would not have chosen this '49er novel on my own.  This is set before the usual western time period of '65-'10, or so. Wheeler sets this in 1847 to 1850 and tells the tale through two different love affairs.

In 1849 Ulysses McQueen leaves (abandons) his newlywed and pregnant wife in Eastern Iowa to trek across the West to gold rush California. Ulysses has a tough journey as he runs low on money, teams up with a friendly gambler, joins a mule train led by a sadistic jerk, and runs low on food and water as he approaches the Sierras. Once Ulysses arrives in the gold fields he does find plenty of gold but his profits are eaten up by extraordinarily high prices for food and equipment. Ulysses's wife Susannah suffers from loneliness. Ulysses's brothers have helped tend and harvest Ulysses' crops but when Susannah bucks the family patriarch she is cut loose and forced to travel the Panama route to find Ulysses in California.

Stephen Jarvis is mustered out of the U.S. Army in California in 1847. California is a new U.S. territory after the Mexican-American War. Jarvis does not want to return to New York and restart his old job as a cooper. He doesn't want to be a cooper in California either. Stephen wants to discover wild California and own his own huge tracts of land. Shortly after his last day as a soldier Stephen meets Rita, a wealthy rancher's daughter. It's love at first sight for both of them, never mind Rita's huge tracts of land. But, native Californios do not like Yankees and the cultural divide is wide. Stephen pledges to work hard, return in a year, and court Rita. Off he goes.

Things happen. Stephen is on the scene at Sutter's Mill when gold is discovered. Stephen starts a store to supply the miners with equipment and food and makes a lot of money. Rita loves Stephen but her family rejects him and marries her off to a native Californio. Rita still loves Stephen and freezes out her new husband. Stephen is devastated after Rita's marriage and throws himself into his work. New Husband asks church for annulment after being married to cold fish Rita.

Susannah's land journey across Panama hits her and her daughter with Yellow Fever and her daughter dies. Ulysses experiences change him from callow youth to experienced man but he cannot return to Iowa a failure. He doesn't write Susannah because of mail costs and guilt. Ulysses gambles away almost all his money in a last ditch chance to make a bundle. Ulysses ends up partnering with Stephen for Stephen to supply land for Ulysses to farm. Miners need food but almost all food is being imported from Oregon and Chile.

Except for the dead infant everything ends happily. Susannah reaches California and she and Ulysses forgive themselves and one another and start over as farmers. The church denies Rita her annulment so she rejects the church and goes to find Stephen. Stephen was leaving California for New York, instead the two of them take Stephen's fortune to start over in Chile. Or was it Argentina?

1. An excellent example of fiction that teaches as it entertains. Plenty of detail of the difficult overland trail through the prairies and mountains. Life as a miner. The economy in California. Mining methods and the importance of volume when processing gravel and dirt.
2. Prices were insane in California because most things had to be imported. Those imports traveled a long way. Gold claims were so numerous and productive that gold fever hit most men. Shop owners had to pay high wages to keep men on the job and away from the claims.
3. Most payment was done with gold dust. Smaller purchases were measured by the pinch.
4. I recently read There Are Aliens Behind Uranus, Mr. President. One of the space ships in that book was named after Winfield Scott. That name seemed familiar, so I looked it up. The name seemed familiar because I was thinking of Randolph Scott. Winfield Scott was a hero of the Mexican-American War who led an infantry campaign from the coast into Mexico City.
5. Winfield Scott is not mentioned in Sierra.
6. I got impatient to return to either storyline. Wheeler would take awhile to write about Stephen I'd be wanting to get back to Ulysses, and vice-versa.
7. The prairie travel reminded me of the Hugh Glass story told in Revenant.
8. No Ulysses jokes as he suffers during his journey.
9. It'd be neat to try and walk the same overland trail. The trip would be much easier nowadays as well.
EDIT 10: I just discovered this won the 1996 Spur Award. I am not surprised.

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