Story Rating: 4 stars
Audio Rating: 4.5 stars
Narrator: Dorian Bane
Length: 7 hours, 38 minutes
Sweetwater is a historical M/M romance set in 1870’s Wyoming at the end of the Gold Rush era.
Elijah Carter is the adopted son of grieving widower Doctor Carter. They live in South Pass City, a dodgy place dominated by saloons, card houses, and taverns that cater to the miners and cowboys who bring their goods to market. Elijah is the only member of his family that survived scarlet fever while on a wagon train to the west coast. He lived, but he’s mostly deaf and has a speech impediment as a result of the infection. He lip reads and has some residual hearing in the low registers—which works because male voices fall into this range. And Elijah’s an unnatural; he’s attracted to men.
Elijah’s eighteen, and never had a kiss or any romantic physical affection. This isn’t unusual for the time. Men and women didn’t consort that way, unless a man was paying for the pleasure—or courting. But, Elijah’s not a catch. He’s a butcher’s assistant, and his drunk of a boss is buying stolen cattle on the cheap from the Mullins boys—including Grady Mullins.
When Elijah is sent to the Empire Saloon to pay the owner Harlan Crane for linking his boss to the Mullins cattle thieves, Crane doesn’t only take the money, he takes Elijah—to his bed. Elijah’s mortified, and humiliated, and shamefully aroused by Crane’s rough handling and unexpected sexual interest.
Grady Mullins has noticed Elijah each time they make their way in to South Pass City, and the “arrangement” between Crane and Elijah troubles him. He decides to step in, thinking Crane’s is abusing Elijah—which could be the right of it. To me, the sex between Crane and Elijah could be described as dubious consent. Harlan often plies Elijah with drinks to get over his shame over being unnatural, and Crane is a brutal “lover” who demeans Elijah while they have sex. Elijah is a stone in a tempest, growing ever more fearful that Doc Carter will learn of his unnatural interactions and either get killed defending Elijah—or kick Elijah out of his home. Neither is acceptable to this scared boy.
I really loved the narration. This is a tough story, as there’s so many mean and horrible aspects—which felt wholly realistic and in keeping with the locale and period. The rough trade sex that Elijah finds himself subject to was really hard to take, at times. I really felt the emotion in the narration, from Crane’s sharp and mocking voice, to Doc Carter’s quiet and gentle one, to Grady’s guttural grumbles of affection and understanding, to Elijah’s flat-toned one. There’s a wide range of voices from male to female and all were handled well by the narrator.
Elijah is a very sympathetic character. He craves love, yet feels so very unworthy of it. He knows Harlan Crane doesn’t love him, but that’s okay because he’s used to scraps of joy mixed into the pain of his world. Nearly all the characters look down on Elijah due to his deafness, and give him respect only because Doc Carter is so beloved. Elijah’s long felt that he should have died with his family, spends hours morbidly imagining his life differently, and dreams of traveling away from the small minds and narrow stares of South Pass City. I don’t want to reveal too much plot, but there’s a huge crisis that puts Elijah on his own in a way that’s completely foreign. It’s then that Grady’s able to step in and offer Elijah more than the manipulations of Harlan Crane. It’s not the end of the story, only the beginning of Elijah stepping up and becoming a “man” as deemed in this society. He’s no longer the meek, biddable receptacle Crane’s been abuse. Nope, he’s a force to be reckoned with—even if that’s only for the short time before the noose arrives.
Still, life turns mysterious paths, and the end is as happy as we can expect for two men that share love in these times and places. I really did enjoy the book; it has an absolute grittiness, and texture that embodies the Old West. I also felt the gruff voice and western twang of the narrator gave this deeper gravitas. Hoarse and breathy at times, I could easily imagine the narrator being a Wyoming cowboy riding the range and rustling cattle, like Grady. The story’s not sweet and sappy. These were hard times, and Elijah had it harder than most, with his deafness. He was mocked by all and sundry, and considered an idiot due to his hearing and speech impediments, though he was a literate man because of Doc Carter’s attention. Hearing all the pain was hard, I’ll admit. I was glad to see him cherished and loved by someone other than Doc Carter in the end.