Monday, February 10, 2014

Review Roundup: All the Gold in California

West of the Big River: The Forty-Niners
By Charlie Steel
The Western Fictioneers Library, September 2013
$8.99 paperback, ISBN 1492379166
$2.99 Kindle, ASIN B00FFE7482
$2.99 most other e-formats, ISBN 9781301682522
128 pages

The California gold rush in the mid-1800s probably killed more people than it enriched. For a brief but intense few years, though, claims of easy wealth spurred America’s great western migration. Charlie Steel’s West of the Big River: The Forty-Niners brings to vivid life the horrors, hardships, and little blessings faced by three groups of California-bound pioneers.

Each group has its own reason for heading west. One man’s obsession with escaping the drudgery of subsistence farming dooms his extended family. A St. Louis merchant cartel’s reckless greed breeds a myopic dash that proves unwise. For the third group, an escaped slave and the drifter he befriends during his run for freedom, the trip provides hard lessons that leave the ex-slave scarred but wiser.

Even at only 128 pages, the book is something of a slow read because many characters must be tracked and a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge must be digested. As usual, Steel’s research appears to have been exhaustive. Should readers ever find themselves in the thick of a bare-knuckles boxing contest, possessed of a desire to skin buffalo, or faced with the need to treat cholera victims, they’ll be well prepared. Fair warning to the squeamish: Some of the lessons, particularly about killing and skinning buffalo, are quite detailed. Steele doesn’t sugarcoat sights, sounds, or smells.

Vaguely reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in tone, The Forty-Niners pits characters — and readers — against a series of misfortunes that seems destined never to end. Independently, the three groups struggle through inclement weather, attacks by opportunistic outsiders, and internal strife before converging in the middle of the vast Great Plains and confronting even bigger problems. Death stalks the travelers at every turn, and sometimes the bad guys win a round, but the pioneers’ hope for the future remains undaunted — perhaps only because they have little choice but to sojourn onward. For some, their pot of gold is mere survival.

At its heart, The Forty-Niners presents a tale about the relentless perseverance of the human spirit despite all odds. The journey is neither pretty nor easy for characters or readers, but once begun, it’s inescapable.

Kathleen Rice Adams is a Texan, a voracious reader, a professional journalist, and an author. She received a review copy of West of the Big River: The Forty-Niners from the publisher. Her opinions are her own and are neither endorsed nor necessarily supported by Western Fictioneers or individual members of the organization. Links in the review are for convenience only; they do not produce affiliate revenue.


  1. We sometimes forget in our look back at the past that it was not all fairy book stories. While not squeamish, it is not always easy to read, but sometimes necessary. Thanks for a most enlightening review. Doris

  2. Kathleen, excellent review, as always. I look forward to reading The Forty-Niners because I know what a thorough, meticulous writer Charlie Steel is. This sounds like a real winner. I don't know much about that time period, so I'm looking forward to learning, and being entertained while I'm doing it!

  3. Kathleen,

    Thank you! Very thorough, very kind.


  4. Hi, gang! Sorry I'm late to the party again. My schedule runneth over lately. :-D

    Doris, I'm like you, it seems. I'm far from squeamish, but the emotional toll of some of these stories is staggering. Charlie's book, for example, uses things like buffalo skinning, a gruesome death by lightning, and a couple of other pretty awful events to evoke a tremendous sense of loss. The book isn't gory by any stretch of the imagination, but it IS chilling. And you're right: The anti-fairy-tales are as important as the happy stories...maybe even more important. :-)

    Cheryl, The Forty-Niners is an eye-opener. I always learn from Charlie's books, because like you said, that man puts one heckuva lot of research into everything he writes. I didn't know much about the time period when I started reading the book either. Now I feel like I could make the cross-country trip myself -- but I should would hate to have done it back then! :-D

    Charlie, I'm not kind. I try to be honest and helpful without giving away too much. I still remember how emotionally difficult a read The Grapes of Wrath was, and The Forty-Niners evoked a similar response in me. I may have to hate you for that. ;-) Seriously, though, I think your book is one people who are interested in getting a handle on the era SHOULD read. Too often, as Doris noted, we tend to look back at the Gold Rush era as a period when fortunes were made. The quest for wealth during that period killed a good many folks, though, and ruined others. The Forty-Niners, while it has some heartwarming, happy, and uplifting spots, presents a side of the Gold Rush era we tend to overlook. Very, very nice, sir. :-)