Homesteader: Finding Sharon by D. M. McGowan

David McGowan, the author of Homesteader: Finding Sharon, is a brave man. I reviewed rather unfavorably his previous novel, Partners, but as that novel showed promise, I wrote that I was looking forward to his next book.

Perhaps taking me up on a challenge, he sent Homesteader: Finding Sharon for review. It takes courage for an author to send a novel to the very reviewer who did not give unqualified praise to his previous book. But Mr. McGowan has done that, and for him it has paid off, because I really liked Finding Sharon. This novel is not without flaws, and I’ll point out what I consider to be a big one, but even so, it’s a very good book.

Those of you who have followed the recent controversy in SPR know I don’t say that lightly. Shucks, I don’t even like Westerns much. But Finding Sharon isn’t a run-of-the-mill Western. For one thing, it’s set near Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The characters are interesting, the writing is very good, and Mr. McGowan’s ear for the nuances of spoken English is right on.

Henry (Hank) James, the protagonist and narrator, is 22 years old with a 40-year-old head on his shoulders. His kindness, consideration for other people, and lack of prejudice against Native Americans and other non-white people, coupled with his understanding of human nature, make him seem older than his years. Other characters comment on this, too.

Hank’s partner, Harry Gilmore, is half Lakota, but he’s the cultured one, who speaks in complete sentences, uses few contractions, and seldom drops the g’s in his present participles. Harry is also some years older than Hank, and better educated. Periodically, he takes on himself the younger man’s education. In return, Hank protects Harry from the attitudes of other whites by treating him as what he is – Hank’s business partner. Hank demonstrates in tangible ways that he trusts Harry. He sends Harry to Wyoming to buy cattle, and gives Harry the cash to do it with. A white man in 1886 trusting a half-breed with all that money? Hank does it, and his trust brings Harry near tears.

The two men plan how to file on homesteads. Hank outlines his plan to Harry.

“You don’t want much,” Harry observed. “I thought you could only get one quarter section on this Homestead plan.”

“Well, we’ll each get one.”

Harry laughed. “I’m an Indian. You expect the Great White Mother to let me in on the white man’s land grab?” [The Great White Mother is Queen Victoria.]

“No, I don’t,” I admitted. “But you worked fer me fer over a year an’ I didn’t know you was Sioux. Harry Gilmore sounds a might (sic) British. Maybe a Scotchman ‘r an Orkneyman. Some ’o them ‘r pretty dark.”

“You plan t’ pass me off as white?” Harry asked.

“I don’t need to’ do anythin’ of the sort. You can, and have been doin’ that your own self,” I responded.

When he hadn’t commented after a few minutes, I added, “These pompous fools of in the east want t’give land away fer ten dollars, it only makes sense that some o’ them that looked after it fer a few hundred years should get some of it.”

Hank’s education proceeds regarding women, and what a single woman might have to do to survive on the frontier. When Hank finds his love, Sharon Dalton, running a brothel, he can’t overcome his fundamentalist upbringing that she has ruined herself. Harry talks to him about the plight of women on the frontier, but it’s another friend named Jack who speaks gives most eloquently:

“This is the great frontier. It’s a wonderful place for a man to make his mark and his fortune, something that you have already done, despite your age. But this is no place for a woman alone. Hell, the world is no place for a woman.”

“Women do fine, far as I can see,” I objected. “I don’t really want t’ talk about this.”

“Then shut up and let me talk,” Jack said. “…A few women make a go of it in this country. … But they are few and they never have much, particularly if they’re alone. Women are the property of some man, their father, their brother or their husband. If they don’t have those men, how do they live?

“Look at yourself. You want to … build a freight company? Go ahead. Think a woman could do that on her own?” …

“Well, no, she couldn’t,” I said. “But why should she need to start her own business? She can get married an’ let her husband do it.”

“So it’s alright for you to have dreams, but not her? It’s alright for you to enjoy satisfaction, but not her? And what if she’s already tried that once, her husband got killed, and she was left with nothing? Should she try that trail again?”

One of Hank’s neighbors is in exactly that situation. Lottie McAdams is trying to hide from everyone that her husband has died so that eventually she can prove up on their homestead and then inherit it, or several years’ work will be down the drain, with every penny of their investment.

(From her situation I learned one important difference between the Canadian Homestead laws and ours. The U.S. 1862 Homestead Act specifies a homestead could be held by a “head of household.” It does not mandate the gender or race of that head of household, so my own grandmother was able to file on a homestead in Eastern Montana in 1900. )

Of course, a novel need an antagonist. In Finding Sharon, Portis Martin is a villain we love to hate. He may be the weakest character in the novel because he is big, mean, and greedy, with no redeeming qualities that I could detect. Here McGowan shows more originality than many novelists do, because while Martin is defeated, and good triumphs over evil, the book has no clichéd ending of two gunfighters meeting on Main Street.

That being said, I won’t spoil it for you. You’ll have to read it for yourself.

While I enjoyed the novel very much, I had to overcome its major flaw to do so. The novel is written in first person, and the narrative portions are in perfect English. But the dialogue is in dialect, and the first time I came across “or” spelled as “er” to simulate the flatter spoken language of the protagonist, I had to stop and figure out just what the author meant. I strongly disagree with writing dialect, and complained of it in the previous book. Here my complaint is that for the protagonist to write narrative in beautiful, well-educated English and portray himself speaking in a much less well-educated dialect is jarring to the reader. When writing in first person, narration and dialogue should be in the same voice.

That being said, I have to admit that the strong story carried me through and eventually I pretty much forgot about the dialectical misspellings.

McGowan has benefitted from the work of a professional editor. Nonetheless, a few homonyms have slipped through. In the first quotation, for example, Hank says, “Harry Gilmore sounds a might British….” “Might” should be “mite,” like the “widow’s mite.”

I hope Mr. McGowan intends to write a series because I think he’s onto something. I’m looking forward to his next book.

  • Well done David McGowan. It sounds like he’s hit on an idea which mite – sorry, might – run to a sequel or two. After reading the review, the obvious question (to me, anyway) is whether it is the “one major flaw” which prevents the book from finding its way in mainstream publishing.

  • Hi, Stephen,

    I don’t know the prior history of Mr. Mcgowan’s book, but from my own experience I’d assume that two things could prevent it from finding a mainstream publishing home. First is its setting: Western Canada. Second is its time: the later nineteenth century.

    The publishing industry is driven by fashion, and just now the fashion in genre writing is for horror, time travel, paranormal, and vampires (although there are signs that vampires might be going out of style). In literary writing, the fashion for some time has been the individual psyche as seen in a “different person.” Just look at the more recent winners of the Pulitzer Prize to see what I mean.

    What the demarcation is in Canada, I don’t know, but novels in the US set West of the Mississippi during the nineteenth century automatically get classified as “westerns” in the US publishing mind, and few houses will touch them. Perhaps they consider them old hat, or perhaps they are not “politically correct,” in that usually men take center stage. At any rate, it’s extremely difficult to have a novel set in the nineteenth-century West published by the mainstream publishing houses.

  • Carol

    That’s very interesting – exactly the sort of stuff most people in general and writers in particular don’t know. (It’s also a little sad, given that some of my favourite books are genu-ine Westerns; Monte Walsh, for example, makes my list of top ten books which you can find at my website stephencashmore.com if you’re interested).

    But your answer raises another question – isn’t that always the way? And that is: are you saying, then, that a writer has to write for the market, rather than what he or she feels moved to write? For example, at the moment I’m in the middle of writing a book which is essentially an old-fashioned ghost story. As it happens I see this fits a current fashion of paranormal (more by luck than judgement), but if it didn’t, would you be sayig, don’t waste your time Cashmore, write a vampire flick instead? To put it another way, if somebody out there suddenly writes an absolute masterpiece based on, say, Jesse James, would there still be no chance of publishing it?

    And to put it yet another way – how do these “fashions” arise? Surely by readers indicating that they actually want to read something different from what the market is currently offering…..?

    Now I’ve confused myself.


  • Hi, Stephen,

    Many Web sites that list genres for books don’t even have Westerns on the list. Despite that, there are people out there who do read them and love them, not just the traditional Western which ends with two gunmen shooting it out, but books like McGowan’s, which breaks the mould, and my own God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana, which is historical fiction set in Montana during the Civil War, and which won the 2009 Spur Award for best first novel from the Western Writers of America. (Shameless self-promotion!) I couldn’t get anyone in traditional publishing to look at it, and my former agent merely sniffed and said, “I don’t like Western themes.” So hooray for self-publishing.

    Besides, Robert B. Parker, long known for his very popular Spenser series of mysteries, has recently taken to writing the traditional Westerns, which says something about the genre anyway. (I’ve read them all and like them a lot.)

    To answer your other questions, write what you feel called to write. No one can predict fashion in literature, just as no one can time the stock market. I follow my own advice, write what I’m called to write, and once it’s done and out there, promote it as well as I can, and let God take care of the rest. So far, so good.

    How fashions arise, I don’t know. I suspect politics may have something to do with it. Books not selling is one way people can tell when a fashion is on the wane. But to tell the truth, I don’t worry about what’s fashionable. I write what I’m called to write and let the rest be. Otherwise, I’d make myself crazy.


  • Carol

    Well, I’m glad to hear say “write what you’re moved to write”. My faith in the literary world is restored somewhat.

    But my faith in the world of agents is, I suspect, unrestorable, if there is such a word. So one last question for you, arising from your comment about your ex-agent saying that he or she doesn’t like Westerns – although I’ve had this thought before.

    I understand why an agent might specialise in certain types of books, or even certain genres. But, given that, shouldn’t an agent be able to say “I don’t like this book much, but I can see that a lot of people would.”? Otherwise, it seems to me they are setting themselves up as arbiters of fashion/choice/taste for the world at large, which seems wrong to me.


  • Hi, Stephen,

    One of the major reasons why people self-publish is that we’re weary of the “gatekeepers,” the agents and editors who decide which books get published and which do not. So far as I can tell, rejections happen because:

    The book isn’t very good. Or it’s awful.
    The writer is unknown. Craig Lancaster is an example of that, but his fine novel “600 Hours of Edward,” was picked up by a publisher after he asked if they would act as a distributor. They reviewed the book and decided it should be under their own imprint.
    The topic, locale, or subject are not fashionable enough to guarantee massive sales. I believe that’s the case with “God’s Thunderbolt,” and I also think the Spur gives me the right to say that.

    In defense of editors, publishers, and agents, however, they are in the publishing business to make money. Agents presumably know the literary marketplace well enough to have a sense of what editors and publishers want, and I can certainly forgive them for not wanting to waste their time banging on closed doors. I wouldn’t either. Publishers and editors need to make a profit on the books they buy, so they have to be extremely selective. (Read choosy.)

    They pay megabucks to a very few writers in hopes that their books will earn everything back. The profits from the big sellers in turn fund lesser writers who have to do their own promotion because there is no budget for that. Those profits also pay for editors’ children to go to college, and to keep the lights on in the publishing house.

    Actually, I feel a little sorry for the top writers who get very rich from what they write, because they are trapped in their success. Should they deviate from the writing they are known for, their publisher and their agent might just separate them from their contracts. One major writer years ago wrote more than one novel, different from her usual work, that she shopped around under a pseudonym. No one would look at them until she revealed that she had written it (or them — I forget if it was one or more). Then, of course, the books were snapped up, but she had made the industry look foolish. If Dan Brown deviates from what he’s known for to write literary fiction, he might find himself back to the beginning, struggling all over again.

    Yeah, I know, everyone would like to have that problem.

    All this notwithstanding, I don’t blame the publishing industry, or the profit motive. I think the marketplace serves a useful purpose because these much-maligned publishers, editors, and agents read zillions of queries, proposals, samples, etc. every year. They develop an eye and an ear for good writing and good stories, and they really can tell from the first sentence or paragraph or page or more whether they have found a writer or a rejection.

    Self-publishers bypass them and go straight to the ultimate judges, the readers. If the readers don’t buy our books, we might not have worked hard enough at promoting our work, or it might not be any good. Because it’s a sad truth, that we can pour our souls into a piece of writing and it might not be any good. (I restrained myself from writing, It might stink.)

    Re: the former agent. A couple of years earlier she had praised the writing to the skies, so when she turned it down, I figured too much time had elapsed between her first reaction and the rejection. My bad. I learned from that not to let grass grow under my boots between a query and the finished product.


  • erichammel

    Gatekeepers. I’ve been one, I’ve run up against them.

    As a gatekeeper, I found that proffered manuscripts can be divided into four big piles: (1) good story badly written, (2) good story well written, (3) bad story badly written, and (4) bad story well written.

    3 is easy. Reject.
    2 is easy. Find a way to sign the book.
    4 is difficult. See if the writer has or can locate a better story.
    1 is expensive. Coach the writer to produce an acceptably written book.

    There are gatekeepers to avoid: the lazy or swamped editor who reads three pages and the vain wanna-be writer who’ll only ever use his English lit degree as an editor.

    The problem with self-publishing isn’t gatekeepers, because they’re bypassed. It’s filtering. Every writer needs a truth-teller and a clear path to using the truth to become a better writer, a better storyteller, a better judge of one’s ability to locate a good story, and a better advocate for the reader.

    I’ve written forty books; I have no confidence issues; I know I can write. Neverthless, I’d never put a book into print without its being read by a seasoned editor nor a small sampling of target readers. I always get useful feedback about the storyline that’s going to make me look smarter than I’ll ever be.

    For all that I’m confident now, I began when I was fifteen. I had everything to learn about writing. I earned a journalism degree and wrote every day as a public relations or ad writer. I stuck with book writing through years of rejection by gatekeepers. I finally broke through, and (I say now) hilarious events cropped up to thwart me. I was 37 by the time a big enough break came through to support my family via full-time writing. I had everything to learn about publishing, discovered systemic cheating, earned the ire of gatekeepers, and used skills acquired in advertising to successfully self-publish myself and take on other authors.

    Being mad at or impatient with the system, even knowing how to produce a book, isn’t enough to justify foisting a half-baked or simply awful book on the reading public. Looking back over nearly fifty years of either chasing the dream or living the dream, I must say that the one factor that has made me a successful self-published author has been my fortunate recognition that I always benefit from professional input–good insight and good editing. It ALWAYS comes down to the story and how the story is presented.

    No one can possibly cover all the bases alone. To think otherwise is hubris.

  • “Being mad at or impatient with the system, even knowing how to produce a book, isn’t enough to justify foisting a half-baked or simply awful book on the reading public. Looking back over nearly fifty years of either chasing the dream or living the dream, I must say that the one factor that has made me a successful self-published author has been my fortunate recognition that I always benefit from professional input–good insight and good editing. It ALWAYS comes down to the story and how the story is presented.”

    Eric, you are so right. I am fortunate to belong to an honest but kind group of writers who helped me greatly with my novel, God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana. The group’s motto is “Writers helping writers.” We do not compete with each other; we encourage and assist anyone who wants to write.

    God’s Thunderbolt went through 2 years of readings before I shopped it around. Eventually, I self-published it to enthusiastic reviews and the 2009 Spur award for best first novel. Last night I read the opening scene for the sequel, Gold Under Ice, and I have more work to do.

    I would far rather catch problems in a friendly group than wonder why the novel wasn’t well received.

    For me, and I suspect many others, impatience has come with age. I simply don’t have the years left in my life span to wait, a comment I’ve heard from others. For me it was now or never.

  • I reread this review and must respectfully but completely disagree with Joel’s peeve regarding the mixture of dialog in dialect with perfectly rendered narrative.

    Speech and reading/writing occur in different parts of the brain. They actually constitute separate languages, each with its own rule set. Speech begins with mimicry of a mother’s cooing to please an infant, and it never really stops being mimicry. I’m a seasoned public speaker and I can obey rules of grammar if I give a formal speech, but my everyday spoken language has its foundation in the neighborhood street dialect I learned while growing up in Philadelphia in the 1950s. I tend slightly toward erudition in this phase of life, but I typically use that old Philly dialect in informal talks, to put listeners at ease, and to be me.

    On the other hand, I write in formal English. I also edit it. I teach writers, through the editorial process, to use dialect in dialog as a means to authenticate the differences between characters. It is natural for dialog to be rendered in dialect or with any other quirks the speaker (imagined or real) has developed. It helps differentiate one character from others. Writing dialog in the formal language of the narrative flattens the dialog into the narrative.

    Here’s a real line spoken by a real combat leader in a real time and place: “‘Kay, boys, they have us jus’ where we wan’ ’em.” Would you seriously require that I flatten that? Or even attempt to make sense of it? Recast it? Even explain it? It sings the way it is.

    Here are two common Philadelphia-speak sentences of my generation:

    “I’m gone down Pete’s house.”

    “We went downa shore.”

    Would you flatten those out? Can you not understand them as rendered?

    I have a peeve too. It’s a big one. My peeve is all about reviewers who allow their peeves to drive the review. For every person who wants to flatten dialog, there’s probably at least one who prefers real dialect in dialog. What’s an author to do? Write two versions of the book? Or follow his ear and his heart?