Child in the Valley, a strong first novel by Gordy Sauer, who was born and raised in Irving, Texas, takes an unromantic look at the California gold rush.
It’s 1849, and among the tens of thousands of prospectors — mostly male — is Joshua Gaines, a 17-year-old orphan whose adoptive father, a failed doctor, has recently died of cholera. Saddled with his father’s debt, Joshua flees to Independence, Mo., and joins a small ragtag group headed west.
Along the way, Joshua and his fellow travelers go through a series of adventures. They cross rivers and mountains and are chased by an angry mob. A bear mauls one emigrant’s arm, which Joshua then amputates, using surgery skills he learned from his father.
What distinguishes the plot from a potboiler Western is the vivid portrayal of Joshua’s transformation. He begins as an impressionable youth, conflicted by feelings of attraction toward men, and turns into a cold-blooded killer, robbing and murdering miners in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada with a band of marauders. In the end, he redefines his sense of self yet again, assuming a new identity in San Francisco.
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