by Dustin Hansen
Genre: Historical Fiction / Western
Print Length: 187 pages
Reviewed by Nick Rees Gardner
Dustin Hansen reinvigorates the Western form with Navarro’s Gold, an adventure through the beautiful and dangerous landscapes of the American West.
Even though he is innocent, Cole Baxter is a wanted man. Estranged from his affluent city-slicker family, Cole explores the flat landscape of Nebraska in search of a past pirate’s hidden gold. He finds friends and enemies alike as he spends his wealth freely around the saloons and general stores.
As Dustin Hansen paints the western landscape, Cole, the academic-turned-wannabe-cowboy forced to compare the open prairies, rock formations, and more distant mountains, to the cities where people like his family vie for riches. In both worlds, there is treachery and violence, and Cole, in all his naivety, must learn the hard way about who he can and cannot trust.
Unlike many mythical heroes of traditional Westerns, Cole Baxter is an academic, a historian, and archivist from New York who “Didn’t realize how ill-prepared he had been to face what the west had to offer.” After the love of his life, Maggie, chooses Cole’s best friend over him, he seeks out a treasure that he and Maggie have talked about for years in hopes that, with the treasure, he can win her back.
What he doesn’t expect is for his former friend Doyle, Maggie’s husband, to put up a reward for his arrest. As Cole travels from town to town in search of a famous astronomer who can help him read the pirate’s journal to track down Navarro’s treasure, he is tailed by Pinkertons and bandits, making an already fraught hunt even more dangerous, often almost deadly. He meets friends along the way, such as the old astronomer’s grandson, Eliot Bianchi, also an astronomer, who joins Cole on his journey.
Eliot and Cole’s friendship becomes central to the story as the two stick together through raging infernos, chases, and gunfights. Cole is laid bare for the reader, the close third person narration explaining his predilections, plans, and dispositions as well as his doubts.
However, Eliot is much more distant, hiding at least one major secret, which is revealed in a manner both abrupt and shocking. However, as their friendship evolves, Eliot’s secret becomes a driving tension that brings the story and Cole’s already shock-filled adventure, to a surprising end. Hansen is no stranger to plot twists and is unafraid of dragging his characters through near-death experiences, seemingly out of nowhere, making Navarro’s Gold as unpredictable as the wild land it’s set in.
The wild land itself is an elegantly portrayed backdrop that provides not only important obstacles in the form of flash floods, rivers, caverns, and gulleys, but also respite for the characters. Hansen’s knowledge of the wild west landscape is matched only by his poetic diction in which he expresses the beauty of the natural world. Near the climax of the story, Cole inspects a rock formation which Hansen describes: “the orange cuprite nearly glowed as it picked up the coral hue of the sun. It rippled and flowed like a flame frozen in stone.” It is this beauty, depicted by the author, and clearly admired by the characters that tie Cole to the wild land.
As the wise and friendly prostitute, Tillie, puts it to Cole,“‘while you might have read tales of good conquering evil in the west, it just ain’t the way things turn out in the real world. Bad wins because bad is willing to go further. Bad has nothing to lose.’” And Cole does lose almost everything. It is through this loss that he finds the more important aspect of life.
Though Hansen’s Navarro’s Gold, is, at surface, an adventure and treasure hunting novel, it harbors a more sophisticated depth. The treasure hunt is not about the gold itself, but the history behind it, and the story of those who try to find it.
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