Monday, September 08, 2008
Review of God's Thunderbolt
Title: God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana
Author: Carol Buchanan
Genre: Historical fiction, western
I had requested the opportunity to review Carol Buchanan’s novel God’s Thunderbolt because I found the idea of a lawless frontier place, hundreds of miles from nowhere and forced to develop their own rules, a very interesting one. What I didn’t realize was that the book was actually more of a romance novel then a straight historical fiction. Now, it’s not advertised as that, but structurally it is. Once I got over my surprise, I was better, but I’m still a bit disappointed in Ms. Buchanan’s novel.
The historical and plot situation is this. In 1863, at the height of the Civil War, a gold rush had broken out in Adler Gulch, a valley in what is now Montana. At the time, this was part of the Idaho Territory, which was just getting organized. For whatever reason, Congress hadn’t applied the US Constitution to the territory when it was founded, and even if it had, the nearest government center was at Fort Benton, 350 miles away and on the other side of a mountain range. It might as well been on the Moon for all the good it did the miners at Adler Gulch, who organized themselves into various districts or towns, with a thin veneer of government.
In early winter of 1863, Nick Tbalt, foster son of Major Thomas Fitch, CSA, was killed and his body dumped. Martha McDowell takes this killing, one of many, especially hard. Also affected is Dan Stark, the son of a New York lawyer who gambled away a fortune before shooting himself.
In romance novels, there is a three-part structure of heroine, protagonist (the object of the heroine’s desire) and antagonist (person working to prevent the heroes from getting together). Here, Martha and Dan are trying to get together, obstructed by Martha’s husband Sam. While this is happening, Dan and Martha are also working discreetly to bring Nick’s killer to justice. Dan succeeds in getting George Ives arrested, and there is a “miners court” trial of Ives for the murder.
This is where for me the novel went somewhat off of the rails. The miner’s court was a chaotic affair, in which “juries of the whole” (which meant “whoever came and listened”) could decide cases, and where the first argument was which set of laws to apply. Ms. Buchanan spends almost half of the book detailing this trial at length, which I didn’t find very interesting.
The trial concludes finally, at about the book’s halfway point, and we then get to the part that I signed up for, the formation of the Committee of Vigilance. By comparison, this section gets short shrift, being shoehorned in. The romance part picks up here too, although this is Victorian America, so everything is very repressed and straight-laced.
I was reading an electronic copy, and MS Word tells me this book clocks in at 127,000 words. I think it could have been more entertaining at something under 100,000, spending more time on the Committee of Vigilance and the follow-on to that. I also think the romance aspect of the novel, which dominates the few chapters, needs to be more highlighted in the marketing of the book. Having said all of that, God’s Thunderbolt was an interesting read, and a window into a very obscure part of American history.