Friday, October 16, 2015

The Spirit of Sweetwater by Hamlin Garland

Love, pure as a mountain spring
Hamlin Garland is no longer a household name in literature, but at one time he was hailed (like many others have been) as the “Dean of American Letters.” He was an influential early practitioner of American realism whose impact can be seen in the works of later authors like Willa Cather and John Steinbeck. Born in Wisconsin, he eventually lived in Iowa, Illinois, South Dakota, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, and California and wrote regionalist novels set all over the West and Midwest.

The Spirit of Sweetwater takes place in the mountains of Colorado. Richard Clement has lived in Sweetwater Springs for several years, during which time he has struck it rich with a gold mine. The only thing missing from his life is someone to share it with, so he hangs out at the local therapeutic springs resort scoping out prospective wives. One day a woman from the East arrives who catches his attention. Beautiful and demure, Ellice Ross is everything Clement has been looking for in a bride. Unfortunately, she is dying of consumption. Nevertheless, the rugged millionaire miner sets out to win the affection of this tragic young beauty.

Realism is a broad category, and this book tends to push the boundary toward romantic melodrama. The details of life in Colorado and Clement’s career in the mining industry are essentially naturalistic, but the story is so wholesome and earnest it makes most episodes of The Little House on the Prairie seem edgy. I prefer a grittier brand of regionalism, and I know Garland did write some books that satisfy that criteria, but in this one the sunshine and roses outlook definitely predominates. Thankfully, it takes an unexpected turn in the last act that keeps it from being overly formulaic. In general, however, it’s a simple, straightforward tale of love and atonement. When originally published in 1898, it was a volume in the Ladies’ Home Journal Library of Fiction. As long as you don’t expect a profound and gripping work of literature, it’s a pleasant, satisfying read.

The Spirit of Sweetwater is a brief novel, and has the brisk and fluffy feel of a quickie. In 1906 it was expanded into a lengthier work entitled Witch’s Gold. If you appreciate American naturalism, Garland is always a safe bet for a good read. The Spirit of Sweetwater is not his most powerful or accomplished work, but if you’re in the mood for some Rocky Mountain sunshine and a wholesome morality tale, it’ll do.
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