Letters from the West
I’m not quite sure how to handle writing about The Gold Rush Letters of E. Allen Grosh and Hosea B. Grosh. It’s definitely a different kind of a thing for this feature, but we’ve moved in the last few years from our restrictive definition of what Western Lit is. This newspaper’s definition of Western Lit was “Writers of fiction who live in or write about the West,” but it’s basically become “whatever I feel like reading by authors who live in or write about the West.” And now, it’s apparently “lived in.”
As the title expresses, this is a collection of around 80 letters. They are mostly letters written to the East Coast family members of two brothers, Ethan Allen Grosh and Hosea Ballou Grosh, who came out West with the ’49ers for the California gold rush. Dennis Myers wrote about the Nevada Historical Society’s efforts to acquire the collection back in 2008 (“Letter Perfect,” April 10, 2008).
I’ve got a couple of things to mention: First, as I write this, I have not yet read every page of this book, although I likely will have before these words see newsprint. Part of the reason for that is that even though the letters are placed sequentially, I didn’t read the book in that way. For one, I already knew the general outline of the work and how the story ended, so I found myself skipping around for highlights, looking at the few pictures and reading the appendixes. Second, these brothers were about as positive as the most irie of Rastafarians. Readers will just not believe how much care these brothers took not to freak out their family back home despite the fact I feel as though I have a fairly realistic view of the privations they suffered.
These letters are at once filled with minutiae and epic in their scope. It seems everything I’ve read on the topic of the brothers talks about the Sept. 7, 1857, letter from Allen Grosh to his father Aaron describing Hosea’s death, but that letter also shows the brilliant optimism the brothers exuded in their writing: “[Hosea’s death] was very sudden—unexpected but very peaceful. Not a shudder, not a gasp, not a change of feature marked the parting of soul and body. He simply fell asleep. It was such a death as God blesses the good with.” The cause of the death was an infection caused by sticking his foot with a pick.
But life and death are more interesting to me than the ravages of dysentery, details of how silver was extracted from ore, or a perpetual motion device the brothers imagined, and the last letter from Allen to F.J. Hoover describing how he and a companion got caught in a blizzard and got frostbite is gut-wrenching. The various letters that followed were saddening in the way that hearing of the death of an old friend or family member is saddening. It’s as though you know that your dead friend would tell the story a different way, and his or her silence is the saddest part of the news.
I believe that a lot of people will approach this book in a lot of different ways. I can’t imagine that modern day miners won’t read this in the way that modern day journalists read the Territorial Enterprise. I can’t believe that lovers of historical fiction won’t find themselves entranced by the story of two smart and educated brothers who overcame obstacle after obstacle, only to die, having sampled but not attained their (short) lives’ dreams. There’s something about epistolary books that really make readers feel like they’re truly inside the letter writers’ mind—because they are. And that makes the tragic, brutal endings all the more sympathetic and real.