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.