From the Publisher
A Washington Post Best Novel of 2010
"The roundup of serious writers who have written Westerns [since 1966 includes], this year, Deep Creek by Dana Hand (pen name of Anne Matthews and Will Howarth), a grim and fascinating fictional account of the actual slaughter of Chinese miners in 1870s Idaho."--Allen Barra, The Daily Beast.
"[An] engrossing look at racial prejudice and the settling of the West…an insightful look at how Chinese immigrants and American Indians became the targets of rage & violence." --Publishers Weekly
"Dana Hand’s debut novel, a powerful and thorough indictment of the racial discrimination rampant in the late 19th century, takes its name from a site on the Snake River where over thirty Chinese gold miners were slaughtered...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. 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."—Sarah Johnson, editor, Historical Novels Review
"Dramatically, even lyrically...the authors elegantly weave an engaging, thrilling, lively narrative of how and why the gang murdered and mutilated... effortlessly wrapped in a backdrop of the growing Wild West, with self-serving land deals, nefarious connections between powerful men and the rustlers, the precariousness of frontier justice, and pervasive racism against the Chinese. A splendid read.—William Wong, San Francisco Chronicle
"Astonishingly effective...a gripping, spooky historical novel, based on true events, told in a way that closely resembles real life, [yet] full of the unknown and unknowable...Joe, Lee Loi and Grace form a de facto family and help some appealing children along the way. They create another, entirely credible world, which is what America used to be all about. Deep Creek is highly ambitious and compelling, much more complex that it might appear from paraphrase. The dual authorship of this novel may have something to do with the fact that it's twice as good as it might have been otherwise."—Carolyn See, Washington Post
"... for those who love stories about well-developed characters, Deep Creek provides a host of them. Joe himself is a refreshingly offbeat Western hero: stalwart and resourceful, yes, but also thoughtful and willing to ask questions first and shoot later. Lee Loi also proves a bundle of compelling contradictions, but for me the book’s “Most Memorable Character” award goes to Grace Sundown ... a virtual embodiment of the multiple influences that make up the West — and, by extension, all of the United States. To say nothing of her smarts, daring, sly sense of humor, cussed independence and indomitable sense of self. She’s definitely one to ride the river with—even a river as treacherous and haunting as the Snake River that flows, like a bloodline, through Deep Creek.”—Carol Cling, Las Vegas Review-Journal
Deep Creek is a gripping, spooky historical novel…highly ambitious and compelling, much more complex than it might appear from paraphrase. The dual authorship of this novel [Dana Hand is the pen name of Will Howarth and Anne Matthews] may have something to do with the fact that it's twice as good as it might have been otherwise.
The Washington Post
The 1887 massacre of more than 30 Chinese gold miners in a remote area of the Idaho territory provides the real-life foundation for this engrossing look at racial prejudice and the settling of the West, the first novel from Hand (the pen name for William Howarth and Anne Matthews). After police judge Joe Vincent and his 10-year-old daughter, Nell, find a body while fishing, more brutally mutilated bodies turn up along the Snake River. The Sam Yup Company, a Chinese labor exchange, hires Vincent to find the culprits. Lee Loi, an ambitious investigator, and Grace Sundown, a Métis mountain guide who shares a past with Vincent, join the hunt. The three track a murderous crew through remote canyons and towns. The plot soon evolves into an insightful look at how Chinese immigrants and American Indians became the targets of rage and violence. The subsequent capture and trial of the killers illustrate that how the West was won was neither simple nor fair to minorities. (Feb.)
Chinese gold miners are massacred in the Wild West, and the pursuit of their killers proves arduous. Writing under a joint pseudonym, nonfiction authors Will Howarth and Anne Matthews base their first novel on "actual events" (per their epigraph). The miners' bodies, horribly mutilated, are carried down the Snake River to Lewiston, Idaho Territory, in June 1887. Joe Vincent, the 56-year-old county judge, is asked to investigate, a tough assignment because feeling against Chinese immigrants is running strong. But Joe is a decent guy, and the case assumes new urgency when Lee Loi offers him $1,500 to pursue it. The young, Westernized Chinese man is an emissary of the Sam Yup, the powerful San Francisco company that had bankrolled the miners' expedition. Joe and Lee venture upriver with mysterious, exotic tracker Grace Sundown, the child of a French father and a Nimipu (Nez Perce) mother. They quickly identify the killers: seven white horse rustlers living in a cabin near the mining operation, led by a criminal psychopath named Blue Evans. The versatile Joe goes undercover to gather evidence and barely escapes with his life. This much is straightforward, but the story has more eddies and cross-currents than the Snake. What is the connection between the Sam Yup and John Vollmer, the county's biggest landowner? Between Vollmer and Evans? What intrigue is Joe's estranged wife Libby up to, and what has transpired between Joe and Grace? There are exciting moments for the odd trio of investigators as they elude Evans and the angry spirits of several dozen dead miners, but then the narrative sags disastrously with an account of the 1877 war against the Nez Perce, in which Joe participated.Two-thirds of the way through, we're still getting his back story. The authors' clipped prose works well for the action passages, much less so for the complex, see-sawing relationship between Joe and Grace. The makings of a fine novel, obscured by poor pacing and plotting.
Read an Excerpt
JUNE 3, 1887
Maybe I'll catch a sturgeon,” Nell Vincent told her father. “Maybe two.”
Nell held up a twist of frayed red yarn.
“Good choice,” said Joe. After five days of rain, the Snake River was running fast and high. The white sturgeon that trolled its depths grew eighteen feet long and could weigh a ton.
Well, nothing beat experience. Nell was small for twelve but hardy, with straight brown braids that fell nearly to her sash and freckles no buttermilk wash could dim.
“Or maybe I'll start with some trout, and work up.”
They smiled at each other. Half-dried mud covered the Vincents' best picnic spot, and over on the Washington shore, piles of brush and fencing clogged sandbar and cove. But Nell loved to fish, and Joe figured his youngest deserved a treat, even a medal. Her older brother Lon had spent the week of rainstorm sleeping, her sister Letty, sulking. Nell wanted to collect salt and turtle eggs and homestead in a cave, like the Swiss Family Robinson; she had it all planned.
Beside a young cottonwood, his daughter spread their smuggled feast: six ham biscuits and a jar of lukewarm lemonade. Joe did his best, then stretched out in the patchy shade to recover. A pity he had not brought along some bismuth powder.
Nell watched her father sleep. He was a neat, durable man with a shock of coarse gray-brown hair and a lined, clean-shaven face. At the moment he was snoring lightly. He would turn fifty-seven this year and needed his rest. Nell saw no reason to wake him and no reason to wait. She scrambled down the bank and threw out the silk line, swinging it toward open water. To the west, morning sun warmed the low dun hills to copper and gold.
Joe lay on the carriage rug, keeping an eye on her out of habit, but Nell was old enough to cast unsupervised. He went back to sleep, for real this time. Tethered beside the buggy, his bay saddle mare, Trim, nosed at a stand of red willow.
Ten minutes later, Nell felt the hook catch and tug. The rod bent low, then lower.
“Pa, bring the net! I got a big one!”
“Take your time,” Joe said, watching a jay stalk the last biscuit. Nell's estimates ran high. Then he heard her agonized whisper.
He sat up and stared at her catch: an arm rising in the water. He floundered into the shallows to seize the small, bloated body at shoulder and thigh. Long black hair, unbound, trailed over his hands like river weed. Poor lady, poor lady. He turned the corpse over, then saw a gunshot wound in the upper chest, the face chopped like cabbage, the genitals hacked away. Nell had thrown in a line and caught a man.
Joe's best fishing rod floated nearby, still hooked to one ear. Upstream he glimpsed another figure lodged in driftwood, pale among pale logs, and ten yards beyond, a third dark head. That victim might never come to shore. Joe saw the north-running current find and take it. Behind him, Nell moaned.
“Get back to the rig, Nellie. Now.”
Two hours later, Lewiston deputies had dragged ashore six flayed and battered corpses, all male, all Chinese. Joe looked away as Marshal Harry Akers bent over, hands braced on thighs, breathing hard. The deputies were country-bred, and Joe a Union veteran, but Akers was a town man.
“Judge, can you take this over? I got a lot to do. A lot.”
Joe nodded. He was police judge now, and the Chinese case would land with him anyway. He left a silent Nell at her grandparents' tall brick house on Main Street, then sent a deputy to find the local doctor who doubled as town coroner. Decades ago Henry Stanton, an ex-Royal Navy surgeon, came inland from Vancouver to practice in Idaho's gold country. His neat full beard was gray now, the genial face grim. Joe held open the leather satchel as his friend laid forceps and tenon saw beside the first victim.
“Throat cut,” said Henry. “Very slowly. It's butchery.”
“Massacre,” said Joe.
Three of the Chinese dead were naked and bound hand and foot, faces ripped by animal bites. Maybe canine, maybe feline; the wilder reaches of the Snake River above Lewiston still harbored puma and wolf. All the men pulled from the Snake were shot, though some backs and skulls also bore deep ax wounds. One victim was beheaded, the ghastly cranium wrapped in a ragged blue coat and tied to the waist. The rest were castrated. Two were gutted like deer. A skillful job, said Henry, when pressed.
“Poor devils, poor sad bastards,” Joe murmured as he walked the line of shrouded bodies. He knew a crew of Chinese gold miners had wintered up the Snake. He'd even talked to a couple, the morning they left. September of '86? October? His town logs would say. Twelve clothbound ledgers still sat on Joe's desk, one for each year spent as Lewiston's marshal. He should have given the whole set to Akers back in November, as a post-election courtesy, but Joe wasn't that sure his successor could read.
My fault, Joe thought. A river full of dead men. My mistake. He pulled the vinegar-soaked bandana back over nose and mouth, then turned a notebook page, slapping away flies. The battlefield stink was getting worse. Beside him the doctor probed and measured, his bare arms dark to the elbow with river mud and human rot.
Once they tried to sit beside the Snake and rest, but moments later Henry was wading out again. The deputies had missed one. Joe gave the doctor a hand back to shore, then hauled the dead man halfway up the slope. Maggots, pale and writhing, webbed the nostrils and open mouth.
“Corneas slit,” said Henry.
“Before death or after?” Joe asked.
“Before, I suspect.”
Together they heaved the sodden weight toward their riverbank morgue.
At sunset Joe crossed Tammany Creek and turned his mare toward the big shingled and turreted house on the hill. He sat on the stable mounting block to pull off his boots, which smelled of corpse. Likely they always would. He glanced up and saw lamplight in Nell's room. His father-in-law, Alonzo Leland, the town newspaper publisher, must have brought her home.
The front door was locked, so Joe went around to the kitchen. The Vincents had lived in this new house only since Christmas. A dozen packing crates still sat in the parlor, leaking straw, and once again the whole downstairs smelled of fresh paint. Lib and the man from Hale & Cooper were deadlocked over the merits of ivory versus cream.
Alonzo waylaid him in the hallway, hungry for a Teller exclusive.
“What's this about dead Chinks in the Snake?” Joe put one hand on the banister. “Can't tell you anything, Lon.”
“I've got a deadline, J. K.,” said Alonzo behind him.
Trousers soaked, back aching, Joe Vincent climbed on.