Author: Lisa Henry
Publisher: Riptide Publishing
Rating: 4.5 stars
Buy Links: Riptide and Amazon
Type: Standalone Novel
Received from Publisher
Blurb: Wyoming Territory, 1870.
Elijah Carter is afflicted. Most of the townsfolk of South Pass City treat him as a simpleton because he’s deaf, but that’s not what shames him the most. Something in Elijah runs contrary to nature and to God. Something that Elijah desperately tries to keep hidden.
Harlan Crane, owner of the Empire saloon, knows Elijah for what he is—and for all the ungodly things he wants. And Crane isn’t the only one. Grady Mullins desires Elijah too, but unlike Crane, he refuses to push or mistreat the young man.
When violence shatters Elijah’s world, he is caught between two very different men and two devastating urges: revenge and despair. In a boomtown teetering on the edge of a bust, Elijah must face what it means to be a man in control of his own destiny, and choose a course that might end his life . . . or truly begin it for the very first time.
Review: The harsh realities of life in 1870’s South Pass City are vividly evoked in Lisa Henry’s Sweetwater. Elijah Carter lost his entire family to Scarlet Fever when he was of five years old. The same disease that left Elijah almost deaf. Growing up with the backwater beliefs of the majority of those around him was nothing but misery for the boy who was constantly mocked and ridiculed, considered the village idiot merely for the speech that resulted from his inability to hear the spoken word clearly. Through his childhood and teenage years, it was the care of the kind doctor who had treated his family in their illness, and took Elijah into his home and heart when they all succumbed to it, that gave him any sort of happiness.
Now twenty, at his best reckoning, Elijah is wracked with guilt and shame because of his belief that his “afflictions” – his deafness and his sexuality – make him unworthy of Doctor Carter’s love. Although he has always tried to be a good substitute son for the wife and daughter the doctor had lost before Elijah arrived – he went to church, worked at the local butcher’s, and did what he was told – his sinful attraction to other men fills Elijah with disgust at himself for the shame it would bring on Doctor Carter if anyone were to know his adopted son coveted the touch of the same sex. Even those who had shown him any kindness would turn away from him in disgrace.
Elijah comes to the attention of Harlan Crane, the owner of The Empire, South City Pass’ biggest whorehouse, gambling establishment and drinking hole, and a very dangerous man. Crane’s proclivities are a badly kept secret and Elijah is drawn to both Crane’s supreme self confidence and the danger the man promises. After all, Elijah deserves to be punished for his sins. Crane recognises Elijah’s desires and preys on the young man’s vulnerabilities. Elijah is powerless to resist the draw of the man who provides both pleasure and punishment, believing he doesn’t deserve love or happiness, but also because Harlan Crane sees him and knows Elijah isn’t the simpleton others assume he is.
Grady Mullins notices the quiet young man who works at the butcher’s he and his cousins deliver stolen yearlings to for a good price. The plan was to raise enough money from their endeavours to purchase some land for a cattle ranch of their own, but it seemed to be more and more a pipe dream, never getting ahead enough to make it reality. Grady’s cousins know of his orientation and accept him completely. Grady is fascinated by the younger man and sees Elijah for the sweet, lost intelligent, broken, gentle, passionate man that he really is.
Elijah’s struggles with the desires that run contrary to the teachings of the church is heartbreakingly painful to read at times. His lack of self esteem and belief that he is not a worthy son for his adoptive father primes him perfectly to be used and abused by a man like Harlan Crane. There’s no doubt that Crane is a bad man, but he isn’t a cardboard cut out villain either. He does have some care for the broken young man, but is far too selfish for any softness he might have felt towards Elijah to be anything but passing. In the end, his actions are always to the ultimate benefit of himself. In comparison, Grady’s only wish is for Elijah to be happy and at ease within his own skin. The love Grady feels for the younger man and his determination to show Elijah that two men can know love together is beautifully portrayed. There is a quiet, but undeniable power to the writing that suits the characters and the times they live in perfectly. With wonderfully drawn and nuanced characters and a grittiness that speaks of lives lived in the harsh realities of the 1870s, Sweetwater is a hard read at times, but not without hope for Elijah and Grady. I adored Elijah and Grady together and really would have loved to see a little more of that as a counterpoint to Elijah’s shame and loneliness through the first part of the book. Because we did get some of the story from Grady’s point of view scattered throughout the book, we were shown his growing feelings towards Elijah in stages, but Elijah’s towards Grady seemed to happen a lot more suddenly and without the build up to it. There was still a genuine believability to it, but it just felt like there was a little piece of the puzzle missing.
I am not generally much of a fan of historicals, but Elijah’s story was crafted with such skill that I was drawn right into his world and didn’t want to leave until I knew if he’d be okay. The ending was full of hope and I would love to know if the promise in it gets fully realised. It didn’t feel like there was anything left frustratingly unresolved there, but I do have my fingers crossed that there might be a sequel one day.