Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Gold Rush: Hard Gold: The Colorado Gold Rush of 1859 by Avi

He said, "Gold looks like a god's eye, bright, bold, and beautiful. It's smooth and soft, the way a god's touch should feel. You can bend it, shape it, and darn hear chew it. It won't change on you. It won't rust. Get enough gold in your hands and you can buy yourself a palace.

"But," cried the minister, and it seemed as if he was pointing his stubby finger right at me, "if you get gold seeping into your heart and mind, if you let it take over your soul, it will turn you into a hard devil. The only thing your gold can buy you then is a cold coffin in a colder grave."

His words chilled my heart.

Next moment Mr. Wynkoop called, "Westward ho!"

Fourteen-year-old Early Wittcomb finds himself a rather unwilling gold rusher. His nineteen-year-old uncle, Jesse, has taken off to Colorado, hoping to find enough gold to pay off the mortgage on their Iowa family farm and save it from the land grabbing railroad speculator who operates in conspiracy with the local banker. When Jesse's first letter begs his nephew for help guarding his find in the lawless mining camp, Early feels that it's his responsibility to go.

Early's only passage across the Nebraska and Kansas territories is to sign on as a hand with the Bunderly family on a wagon train heading for Denver. Bunderly is a weak, unsuccessful barber hoping to better his fortunes, but his wife is ailing and his daughter Eliza, also fourteen, is headstrong and dubious of her father's promises of a better life in the West. But as Early and Lizzie, as she prefers to be called, share the long walk westward, they forge a trust and friendship that serves him well when they finally reach Colorado.

Early is disturbed by the stories he hears about Uncle Jesse, a wanted man for killing a miner who Early knows from Jesse's letter was determined to steal his hard-won earnings. Leaving Denver for the nearby gold fields, Early and Lizzie manage to arrive just ahead of a bounty hunter to find and warn Jesse. Early finds his uncle's kind and sunny heart turned hard and distrustful of everyone but him, but as Jesse flees for his life, he gives Early his stash of gold, with which Early manages to pay off the farm. Once back in Iowa, however, Early realizes that his future is not as his older brother's farmhand but with Lizzie back in Colorado, and with a new life ahead, he again heads west.

Newbery Award author Avi continues his noted historical fiction series with I Witness: Hard Gold: The Colorado Gold Rush of 1859: A Tale of the Old West, a clear-eyed look at the "Pike's Peak or Bust" gold mania of 1859. Avi presents the long road west not as a series of harrowing adventures so much as a long and wearying slog, despite the buffalo stampede which almost takes his life and the death of Lizzie's mother along the trail. But filled with details of daily life, partly presented in journal entries, Avi's account does much to bring this period of American history alive for middle and young adult readers.

This book is preceded by Avi's earlier account of the Civil War battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac, Iron Thunder (I Witness), reviewed here.

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