Auction house owner, hotelkeeper, police judge, and former marshal in Lewiston, Idaho Territory, Joe knows local politics. With his estranged wife’s father as publisher of the Lewiston Teller, his entire family sits in the thick of it. Lee Loi, a Yale-educated representative of the San Francisco-based labor exchange which employed the miners, offers Joe a hefty fee to find the perpetrators. The Sam Yup Company wants the crime resolved, and the Chinese government wants reparations. Joe accepts, even knowing that the region he’s investigating, a 7,000-foot-deep canyon carved into the Oregon-Idaho border, is a jurisdictional no-man’s-land. Neither territory wants to acknowledge the crime unless forced.
In the novel’s first part, the men are joined on their evidence-gathering excursion by an experienced trail guide, Grace Sundown, a half-French, half-Nez Perce métisse with a mysterious past. Alternating chapters look back nine months earlier, as the miners settle in to their grueling work, reminisce about their families in Canton, and struggle to remain healthy. These separate plot strands, equal in suspense, cleverly twist together until the second is suddenly, violently, cut off – a tragedy whose impact isn’t lessened by its inevitable conclusion.
Joe, Lee, and Grace, an unlikely team, form a gradual bond of trust, their togetherness and mutual dependence being the main things keeping them alive. Forced into close company for long stretches, Joe and Grace can’t avoid revisiting their own troubled history. As the trio pursues a trail that’s quickly growing cold, they encounter a strain of pure evil in the form of a predator who uses everything to his advantage, including society’s well-known biases against nonwhites.
The Snake River Country is depicted as magnificent yet brutal, in both appearance and temperament, and the spare, visceral prose brilliantly evokes its harsh nature. It takes time to adjust to the writing style, with its straight-on approach and densely packed sentences, yet the strong narrative takes off of its own accord. Likewise, the characters, among the most courageous and original to be found in Western fiction, don’t reveal their secrets until they’re good and ready. Grace is an especially well-rendered creation; a woman torn between two worlds but belonging to neither, her inner complexity is vividly and movingly expressed.
As their journeys, past and present, wend throughout the Northwest, from small upcountry pioneer towns to the Nimipu settlement at Lapwai, they find indisputable proof of the murderers but few allies and supporters. With anti-Chinese hostility running unchecked through this isolated land, prejudice against Indians alive and kicking, and railroads converging on the area around Lewiston, the scope of the original crime extends much further than the tiny miners’ cabin on Deep Creek. Elements of Chinese and Nez Perce beliefs are intertwined into the tale, augmenting its meaning and strengthening the characterizations.
Deep Creek can’t help but evoke sympathy for the miners and outrage against their killers, especially given that the historical incident at its heart lay forgotten for over a century. In resurrecting its primary players and enhancing their story with imaginative insight, the authors have penned a poignant memorial to the victims, and a compelling tribute to those who pursued justice for them when few others would.
Dana Hand is the joint pseudonym for historians Will Howarth and Anne Matthews, who have authored many nonfiction works separately. Deep Creek was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in February 2010 at $25.00 (hardbound, 308pp, 978-547-23748-0). (I requested a review copy from the publisher out of interest.)