God's Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana
by Carol Buchanan
(BookSurge / 1-419-69709-9 / 978-1-419-69709-8 / June 2008 / 416 pages / $18.99)
At first, or even a second, glance this historical novel might appear to be a simple Western, an action-packed account of good guys versus bad guys and wild adventure on an even wilder frontier, as uncomplicated as an old B-western movie. But it is a more subtle and complicated narrative, part courtroom drama and police procedural, and a closely observed portrait of an isolated community, a community nearly as alien to Americans of the 21st century as something from another planet – Virginia City, Montana, during the last years of the Civil War. Virginia City is a mining camp, a temporary place of shacks and tents, tenuously connected to the greater world by a stage line and by men on horseback carrying messages. It is a dirty, brawling place, of mostly men, searching for gold in the rocky creek-beds, or prying it out of holes painstakingly grubbed in the ground, and taking their comforts where they can. It is winter in Virginia City – blizzards descend from the mountains without warning, and the author makes clear how very comfortless a place like this could be, huddling by a wood-burning stove, having to use outdoor earth-hole privies. Nonetheless it is a community. Some of its residents being former soldiers, of the Union or the Confederacy, some have brought families; all have set aside their previous lives or professions in the quest for gold. They get along as best they can, each with their own memories and secrets to hide… until the discovery of a dead body. The body is that of a young man, well liked and popular in Virginia City – and it becomes clear that he was murdered. His shocked and grieving friends and kin begin looking into the circumstances of his death, thereby pulling the loose end of a string of coincidence that begins to unravel everything they thought they knew about each other.
That growing sense of horror is particularly well done, as men like Daniel Stark, a well-born young lawyer come to the mines to get enough gold to get his disgraced family out of debt, begin to realize that many of the robberies and murders that have occurred in and around Virginia City have been committed by an organized gang. The horror is compounded when Dan and his friends and colleagues pursuing justice realize that those perpetrating such depredations are well liked, even trusted members of the community … and that his life, the life of the woman he is coming to love, and those of his colleagues are endangered by even attempting to take a stand against lawlessness and pillage. It is a gripping and detailed read, the story of well-meaning men who respect the law, having to take their courage and their future in their own hands, at a time and in a place where there was no law, no means at all to protect life and property, other than what men and women of honor could do for themselves. The characters are efficiently drawn, but the sense of place is even more convincing. There is no way to mistake God’s Thunderbolt for a B-western movie adventure – this vivid and carefully researched account was made for someone who really wants to know what the Old West really looked like.
Carol Buchanan's website