Gold Under Ice, the sequel to God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana, which won the 2009 Spur for Best First Novel from the Western Writers of America, takes up only two months after Carol Buchanan’s first novel ends.
Readers won’t have missed many happenings that winter in Alder Gulch. All your favorite characters are still here, Dan Stark, New York lawyer, hero and vigilante prosecutor in Montana; Martha McDowell, his beloved intended; her two children, Dotty and bad-boy Timothy; the funny and feisty Jew Jacob Himmelfarb; and the annoying Fitch, a one-armed Confederate whose views clash with Dan’s.
It seems as if most of Virginia City had gathered near Alder Creek when the spring ice breaks, resulting in a dramatic rescue that begins the book.
The saved man is yet another New York attorney, but one sent to bring Dan and his gold back to New York. Unfortunately, Dan doesn’t have enough of it to rescue his family there from poverty. To pay the debt they owe from his father’s embezzlement and suicide, he could trade gold options and futures in the Gold Room, a market denounced by all patriotic Northerners.
The high price of gold there devalues the Lincoln Administration’s greenback. That paper money pays for its war with the Confederacy; on Wall Street, the Gold Room renegade money market pits the greenback against gold. By January 1864, the greenback loses nearly half its value. Dan faces the untenable choice of risking all his gold and his reputation in the Gold Room or failing his family.
He mulls over his dilemma while in Montana. A financial report in an old New York Times stirs in him the notion of repaying the bank in greenbacks. Maybe speculating in the Gold Room would earn a fortune large enough to repay the bank and secure his family’s future. Or he could lose everything, just like his father did.
Although he must return to New York, Dan hates the thought of leaving his common-law wife, Martha, and facing his autocratic grandfather.
He promises Martha to come back before ice covers Alder Creek once more, but his newly pregnant wife fears she will never see him again. Her legal husband has run away, abandoning her with two children. She also squirms at her status as a married woman shacking up with another man, and she worries about her children.
Dan’s reassurances that they are married in the eyes of the Lord, and the company they keep, are short-lived. His promise to get the laws changed so that she can divorce her missing husband seems even more distant.
When he does come back months later, several surprises are in store for the new family.
Much of the action shifts to Dan’s dilemmas in New York City, but the author has as carefully researched that historic setting as well as she did her familiar Montana/Nevada neighborhood. Many threads weave the fabric of Buchanan’s ongoing story: the Civil War, attitudes toward slaves (still in slavery, escapees and freed ones), the financial morass caused by the war, the controversies over gold and the getting of it, justice versus established laws (or none in the case of territories yet without state status). Racism, lawlessness, greed — all make for an exciting read.
The author also has an ear for dialogue and idioms of the various classes who populate her settings. More research, no doubt, though listening as a child to older generations of Montana residents tell stories about their families and places doubtless color Buchanan’s dialects. Satisfaction with historic fiction often turns on the tiniest of details where authenticity or a mistake can repel readers. Buchanan will lose few with Gold Under Ice.