The time is the cruel winter of 1863-1864, in the Civil War era. The place is the practically lawless gold rush country in what is to become the state of Montana. The story is one of forbidden love and vigilantism, but the hero, Dan Stark, does not love his horse. His Spenser rifle, perhaps, but not the horse. What's more, he is a lawyer and a surveyor, not a prospector, as are many of the other rough characters that populate Carol Buchanan's Alder Gulch.
Foremost, God's Thunderbolt is a work about Montana and, specifically, the Vigilantes who executed (literally) justice on a gang of thieves that included local law enforcement officials. They brought some semblance of much needed order to the area in the times just before the country's government declared it to be an official U.S. Territory. In that aspect, the book can be classified in the genre of Westerns. It is also Historical Fiction and, to some degree, Romance, a bodice-ripper with the obligatory purple passion ending.
Buchanan does a masterful job at portraying her characters from the inside out. The tensions that tear people apart, those between heart and head, social custom and law and church, need and desire surface in elegant descriptions. The plot may not be complex, but subsistence living of the time is not, either. What it is, however, is brutal and bone chilling, dirty, starving, and incredibly smelly. As much imagination as research went into building the story, and this is meant in a good way. It is not a fantasy life shown, but realistic living at the most basic level. Think camping without the camping gear or grounds. “Primitive” definitely captures the lives the people are leading in the area of Alder Gulch.
This is not to say that there aren't several lines of action going on simultaneously in the plot. Underlying all the players' actions are the conflicts of the Civil War. In this time of black-and-white thinking - you are either Union or Secessionist (shortened to "secesh"). Concomitant with the military issues are perplexing and divisive questions about slavery: how to handle the freed, how freed slaves should behave toward whites, and how whites on both sides of the controversy over slavery treat each other.
While Dan Stark’s love interest, Martha McDowell, has an all too realistic and still common back-story, Stark’s feels a bit contrived. Rather than a comedy of manners, it is a manners tragedy, if there is such a rude beast. Upholding a social more and contract certainly is common in this time, in the degrees to which Stark goes and the depth of his perceived duties. The Encyclopedia Britannica describes a manners comedy: “Often the governing social standard is morally trivial but exacting. The plot of such a comedy, usually concerned with an illicit love affair or similarly scandalous matter, is subordinate to the play’s brittle atmosphere, witty dialogue, and pungent commentary on human foibles.”
Flip that over, and you have Stark’s and Martha’s sad dilemma. In a time and place where social standards are mostly in the mind and not in action and existence is a daily battle, niceties like manners scarcely matter. But perhaps that was the whole point. The larger picture is one of the pathos of vicious, greedy men violating higher standards of conduct, leading the morally upright to take judgment and punishment into their unofficial hands. Crude, effective, and hard action is tempered by the soft romance that blooms within.