19th century, books, historical fantasy, historical fiction

Golden Girls

Gold is in the air this fall, and not just in the turning leaves. Two new YA westerns, Erin Bowman’s Vengeance Road and Rae Carson’s Walk on Earth a Stranger, send strong young women on the trail for gold in the 19th century.

Vengeance Road is a straight-up western, chockfull of strong characters and fast-paced action. When Kate Thompson finds her father hanging from a tree on his own homestead, she disguises herself as a boy and sets out to find the Rose Riders, the gang of outlaws responsible for her father’s death. Kate has revenge in her heart, and she tracks and kills the first wounded Rider within the first chapter. It takes her a long time (and some serious setbacks) to admit that she might need the help of two young brothers and an Apache girl named Liluye. Convinced the Rose Riders are tracking a gold cache in the Superstition Mountains, she and her friends endure days of travel in the hot Arizona desert, a shoot-out in a tavern, and serious violence on their trek. But the closer Kate gets to finding the Rose Riders, the more she begins to question her goal of revenge.

Walk on Earth a Stranger might sound similar on the surface, but it also has a touch of magic to it. Lee Westfall grows up in a loving, hardscrabble family in Dahlonega, Georgia, on farmland filled with gold. Lee can sense this gold: it sings to her the closer she gets, and her special abilities have helped her family stay afloat during hard times. But when her parents are murdered, she suspects that someone close to her family aims to control that talent. Desperate for a new life, she joins the rush of men and families heading west to California, where gold’s just been discovered. By disguising herself as a boy, she hopes to make her way west and start fresh with her best friend, Jefferson, a half-Cherokee boy who’s run away from his abusive father. But the overland trail isn’t as easy as she thinks, and she must face terrible hardships along the way.

These are both grand adventures with well-drawn settings and strong lead characters I couldn’t help but root for. Vengeance Road is the more traditional western, and it was by far my favorite. Pulled in by Kate’s rough, vivid narration (in dialect), I raced through the chapters, and I admired the way Bowman committed to such a gritty tale with a female character. While violence permeates the book, it’s coupled with Kate’s own growing realization that revenge may not be the solution she’s looking for. Plus it’s a fast-paced, action-packed read that would be a great introduction to historical fiction for more reluctant readers.

Walk on Earth a Stranger, while no less action-packedfelt slower to me, and I wasn’t quite as invested in Lee’s story as I was in Kate’s. Lee meets so many characters as she travels from Georgia to California – a journey that took most travelers 4 – 6 months – that it’s hard to keep track of them as distinct people. But along the way she makes sharp observations about 19th-century views of women that thrilled my feminist heart.

At the heart of both books, though, is gold. Gold drives the narratives, sometimes directly, sometimes in more subtle ways. Kate’s father is murdered for his luck seeking gold long ago, while the murder of Lee’s parents gives the killer access to her uncanny ability to “witch out” gold in the ground. Lee joins the horde of gold-seekers traveling west to take advantage of the California gold rush, and she struggles to keep her power a secret as she increasingly has to rely on it to save herself and others. And while it’s never overtly mentioned in Walk on Earth a Stranger, the very land Lee grows up on in Dahlonega, Georgia, was stolen from the Cherokees in the 1830s when white Americans learned of the gold hidden in the earth. This elusive metal fueled some of the worst behavior in American history, and it’s a shame that Carson doesn’t take more advantage of the real stories behind her setting.

An entire culture – loose, amoral, focused purely on get-rich-quick schemes – sprang up around American gold discoveries in the 19th century. Kate sees the worst of these as she travels from one hardscrabble Arizona town to another, all built on prospecting hopes that quickly dried up. Desperate bachelors, poor men hoping to strike it rich, formed the backbone of these towns, and while some enterprising women joined them, most ended up working their fingers to the bone doing the washing and cooking for the prospectors. Vengeance Road illuminates these stories in gritty realism, and I can only hope that the sequel to Walk on Earth a Stranger, set in California, will do the same.

One last thing – both books have suffered criticism for their portrayal of Native Americans, particularly Carson’s novel, which includes extensive imagery of Native Americans as grave robbers. Debbie Reese of American Indians in Children’s Literature wrote a scathing review, and it’s worth checking out for a completely different (and thought-provoking) take on the book.

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