Deep Creek

by Dana Hand

Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach

Deep Creek by Dana Hand In 1887, at Deep Creek on the Snake River, along the Oregon-Idaho boundary in what is now called Hells Canyon, over thirty Chinese gold miners were murdered. Joseph K. Vincent, a Justice of the Peace in Lewiston, Idaho, investigated the case. Deep Creek is an intensively researched novel portraying what might have happened.

The story centers on Joe Vincent, Chinese investigator Lee Loi, and the fictional Grace Sundown, with whom the Joe Vincent of the novel has a past. In an opening scene all the more striking because of its restraint, Joe's youngest and favorite daughter, twelve-year-old Nell, discovers the first of the Chinese bodies snagged on her fishing line during what had been a pleasant father-daughter outing. The condition of the bodies makes it clear they were murdered. The jurisdiction is less clear, but Joe is a responsible man. He steels himself to take on a thankless duty - locals treat the Chinese as subhuman pests - and soon turns up the likely culprit, a charming but brutal psychopath with a hair-trigger temper. Gathering the evidence needed to convict him is intellectually challenging and potentially fatal.

One of the beauties of this novel is its subtlety, but the subtlety too often slips into obscurity. Even when the major characters understand the investigation's complex political, financial and social ramifications, these tend to be hinted at obliquely rather than conveyed straightforwardly, making the story hard to follow in places. Secondary and minor characters proliferate, and some who seem incidental and therefore are not individually memorable in the early chapters turn out to be crucially important later on. But Joe, Lee and Grace seem so real, we might be anxiously wading a creek with them or wiping sweat from our brows while standing beside them in a shabby Lewiston storefront. Though it may take perseverance to get through some of the chapters, all are realistic, many of them terrifyingly, movingly or even heart-wrenchingly so. (2010; 308 pages, including an Afterword separating fact from fiction)

More about Deep Creek at Powell's Books or

Other historical novels set in Oregon and Idaho:

The Outlander by Gil Adamson (2007), about a young woman fleeing across Idaho and Montana after killing her husband. More info

The Sea Runners by Ivan Doig (1982), about Russian immigrants in Oregon. More info

The Shanghai Tunnel by Sharan Newman (2008), a mystery about a widow in Portland, Oregon, whose husband's unsavory activities have not all died with him. More info

Nonfiction about Chinese workers in the Pacific Northwest:

Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon by R. Gregory Nokes (2009). More info

Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans by Jean Pfaelzer (2007). More info

Dreams of the West: A History of the Chinese in Oregon, 1850-1950 from the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and Ooligan Press (2007). More info


"Chinese Massacre at Deep Creek," at the Oregon Encyclopedia

Back to Novels of the Old West

Back to Directory of Book Reviews

Enjoy this page? Please pay it forward. Here's how...

Would you prefer to share this page with others by linking to it?

  1. Click on the HTML link code below.
  2. Copy and paste it, adding a note of your own, into your blog, a Web page, forums, a blog comment, your Facebook account, or anywhere that someone would find this page valuable.