Rating: 4 stars
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Elijah Carter is not a simpleton, but most of the town of South Pass City treats him like one because he is mostly deaf. Elijah is the subject of scorn, or at least ridicule, by most people, except for his adopted father, Dr. Carter. When Elijah was a child his family stopped in South Pass City on a wagon train headed West, all struck down by illness that killed the rest and left Elijah without his hearing. Dr. Carter took him in and raised Elijah as family after the deaths of his own wife and daughter. Elijah has never felt worthy of his adopted father’s love however. He knows he can’t replace the family Dr. Carter lost. Plus, Elijah has a secret, dirty and shameful, that he is drawn to other men.
When some shady dealings at the butcher where Elijah works put him in the path of Harlan Crane, a mean and powerful local businessman, Elijah is scared but intrigued. Somehow Harlan knows Elijah’s secrets and is willing to give Elijah what he craves. And if it comes with pain and cruelty attached, well, that is no worse than Elijah thinks he deserves. At least someone sees him. At least he can get the pain in his mind quieted by the pain in his body.
But Harlan isn’t the only man interested in Elijah. Grady Mullins is a cattle thief who comes in and out of town and has his eye on Elijah. Grady thinks he has missed his chance when he sees Elijah with Harlan, but reaches out to Elijah nonetheless. With Grady, Elijah gets tenderness and comfort, something he never expected or feels he deserves.
When violence shatters Elijah’s life, suddenly everything changes for him. His is both full of grief, as well as full of anger, suddenly changing from the meek man who let others mistreat him. Now he is caught between the release he gets from Harlan and the tenderness from Grady. He has no idea how to even handle the feelings Grady brings out in him, or to trust in that comfort. At the same time, he must figure out what his future holds and how to get past the anger and pain that burn inside him.
Sweetwater is a haunting historical that really rests on the shoulder of our shy, troubled hero Elijah. This is a young man in a lot of emotional pain, who has grown up with essentially no sense of self worth. The loss of his family and the derision of the townspeople have destroyed his confidence. Even as he has the love of Dr. Carter, he doesn’t trust it, doesn’t believe he deserves the man’s care and is sure he can never measure up to what the doctor has lost. When Harlan takes an interest in him, Elijah accepts and even revels in it, despite Harlan’s cruelty. Not only does Elijah finally get an outlet for his needs, but he gets the pain and punishment he thinks he deserves for them. It is really fascinating to see the struggle within Elijah, the pain and hatred, along with the need that comes from his dealings with Harlan. FWIW, there is a definite element of dub con to many of these scenes with Harlan and at least one that falls into non-con. While part of Elijah wants what Harlan gives, he often has little choice about going along with it.
The transition for Elijah comes along in two places. First, the violence that changes his life and changes him. Elijah comes out of this event stronger, less willing to put up with the crap that others give him. He is angry and devastated and he becomes much more an agent in his own life, unwilling to go along quite so easily anymore. The second is the involvement of Grady in his life. Grady, who sees him and wants him and makes him feel special. Elijah doesn’t know if he can trust that comfort. Maybe he is better off with the pain and cruelty from Harlan, something at least he can understand. But slowly Grady works his way past Elijah’s walls and shows him what affection can really be like.
The transition Elijah makes under Grady’s care is really lovely to see and the ending of this story is really heartwarming. It is a bit rough overall though, from an emotional standpoint. Elijah is full of grief and pain and self loathing for a lot of the book, and it is sometimes hard to read. I wished we started his progress earlier, especially with regards to Grady. Though we get a lovely ending, I wanted more time to see Elijah’s opening up, to see him transition into happiness. We have to get through a lot of sad before we get to the happy.
What keeps the story moving nicely in the early parts is the great setting and world building. Henry gives us lots of detail on this dirty little town right at the edge of the western passage. It is a mining town, full of people hoping to strike it rich, but things have just about all dried up. It definitely feels like a town that is dying, a place that needs a change in direction to be able to continue to grow. It is a nice parallel with the larger story, the need for Elijah to find another direction in his life and move forward to something new. So nicely done and the book really immerses the reader in the place and time.
So overall this is a really interesting story that gave me a lot to think about. I really liked Elijah and enjoyed seeing him grow and find his happiness. I think the book has a great western feel that really enhances the plot. I did wish for a bit more time with the positive side of things for Elijah, more time to revel in the growth that he has throughout the book. But overall, I enjoyed this one.