I have an admission to make. A great many years ago I lived in Utah for five years with my family and attended High School there and went to Mormon religious classes, called Seminary. In both I learned the history of Mormons and the history of the West. But the only thing I retained about Idaho was potatoes. Idaho was/is known for its potatoes. Until I did the research for my review I knew absolutely nothing about Idaho and its gold rushes. Now I do.
Zane Grey wrote the novel Thunder Mountain while living on Williams Lake. Thunder Mountain derives its name from local Indians that named it after hearing thunder reverberate through the narrow valley forming Williams Lake.
Like many of Zane Grey’s historical romances, Thunder Mountain was based on real life happenings. There were indeed three brothers who came to Thunder Mountain. Their names were Lew, Ben and Dan Caswell. The brothers started their adventure at Thunder Mountain around 1894 and it was the brothers who gave Thunder Mountain its name.
Apparently, Zane Grey made the decision to write about the gold strike at Thunder Mountain in 1931.
Where did Elmer Keith spend most of his hunting and outfitting days? He was a guide for many years in the state in which he lived. In 1931, Keith guided the author Zane Grey and friends in the Middle Fork country. It was from this trip that Grey wrote the novel “Thunder Mountain”.
There were several gold rushes in the US and they were all mad affairs. Once the magic word “gold” was heard, people left their families and homes to seek after what they thought would be easy money. In the case of the Thunder Mountain rush, the magic words came from the Caswell brothers. We, however, are concerned with the fictional story.
One night when the afterglow of sunset loomed dull red upon the pool and the silence of the wilderness lay like a mantle upon the valley, the old beaver noticed a strange quivering ripple passing across the placid surface of her pool. There was no current coming from the brook, there was no breath of wind to disturb the dead calm. She noticed the tremors pass across the pool, she sniffed the pine-scented air, she listened with all the sensitiveness of a creature of the wild.
From high up on the looming mountain slope, from the somber purple shadow, came down a low rumble, a thunder that seemed to growl from the bowels of the great mountain.
Thunder Mountain comes to life and hundreds of years before the Emerson brothers enter life, gold begins to make its appearance near the surface of Thunder Mountain.
For long there was nothing. The valley seemed dead. The mountains slept. The stars watched. Wild life lay in its coverts. Then there came a ticking of tiny pebbles down the slope, a faint silken rustle of sliding dust, a strange breath of something indefinable, silence, and then again far off, a faint crack of rolling rocks, a moan, as a subterranean monster trying to breathe in the bowels of the earth, and at last, deep and far away, a rumble as of distant thunder.
Once again Thunder Mountain wakes. This time, those who hear are the Sheepeater Indians fleeing from soldiers taking over their lands. They decide to listen to its voice and move on.
Enter the Emerson brothers (Sam, Jake and Lee/Kalispel/Kal). The Emerson brothers are the ones who begin the race for gold, but they are not the ones who end it. Indeed, once Kal comes back from getting supplies (Jake has gone off to stake a claim) he discovers the valley full of prospectors and empty of Sam. The main man in the valley, Rand Leavitt, claims that he had found the valley abandoned, but Lee suspects Rand of being his brother’s killer:
“Leavitt, I’ll let you off because men like you hang themselves,” declared Kalispel, bitterly. “But I’m accusin’ you before this crowd. You’re crooked, you made away with my brother an’ jumped his claim. I call on all here to witness my stand against you an’ my oath that I’ll live to prove it.”
Rand and Kal are our main male characters with Cliff Borden and Jake as their respective seconds. There are two female lead characters. One is Sydney Blair, the Easterner come west with her father. Sidney falls under the spell of Rand Leavitt while her father struggles with drinking and gambling. Nugget (Ruth) is a dance-hall girl. The job of a dance-hall girl was to get the customers to buy drinks and to dance with the men who came into the hall. They were generally considered bad girls but not “the worst sort” (Painted Ladies).
Knowing exactly who is good or bad in many of Zane Grey’s historical romances can be a difficult thing. Perhaps being able to tell good from bad has something to do with the lengths to which his characters are willing to go to satisfy their wishes. Rand Leavitt and his compatriots are certainly willing to do a great many nefarious deeds to maintain control of the wealth discovered in the valley (Thunder City). Kal and his brother have more scruples.
Sidney and her father seem to be kind of pitiful characters. Falling for Rand (or at least seeming to fall for Rand) has made Sidney blind and deaf to the evidence mounting against her love. That’s nothing new. I see that all the time in real life. Cognitive dissonance is painful and exhausting. I’ve been through it myself and taking off the blinders hurts. Sidney is in for a whole lot of pain.
Nugget/Ruth is tougher sort. She has had to support herself to survive. Being a dance-hall girl would have exposed her to a plethora of personalities, traits and temperaments. Such a job would have shown her the worst and the best of men. Maintaining her belief in people and life must have been difficult. I imagine all dance-hall girls struggled with that. It is not a life I would choose for a daughter or son of mine, but it is a whole lot safer than needing to prostitute yourself. Like today, prostitutes had it rough.
Kal. Hmmm. I can understand him. Accepting responsibility for my actions was something I struggled with for a long time. Or perhaps it was more a case of accepting responsibility for the consequences of my actions. Kal has a tendency to make excuses for what has happened in his life. There are probably always mitigating circumstances in lives. But what happens, happens no matter what the circumstances were. At least that is what I have found and that is an acknowledgement we see Kal grow into as the story progresses.
Happy endings? Perhaps, but not really. As in real life, dreams are broken and so are lives. Some of the characters find peace in their hearts in spite of what they have been through to get there. I guess that could be called a happy ending.
And Thunder Mountain? Well Thunder Mountain continues to stand today and still sheds its skin from time to time, as I imagine it will continue to do for a long time to come.
- 1935-1939: Das Goldgräbertal (German)
- 1935: Il monte del tuono
- 1939: Ukkosvuori (Finnish)
- 1963: Gullgraverbyen (Norwegian)
- 1936: Hromová hora (Czech)