Idaho Territory, June 1887. A small-town judge takes his young daughter fishing, and she catches a man. Another body surfaces, then another. The final toll: over 30 Chinese gold miners brutally murdered. Their San Francisco employer hires Idaho lawman Joe Vincent to solve the case.
Soon he journeys up the wild Snake River with Lee Loi, an ambitious young company investigator, and Grace Sundown, a métis mountain guide with too many secrets. As they track the killers across the Pacific Northwest, through haunted canyons and city streets, each must put aside lies and old grievances to survive a quest that will change them forever.
Deep Creek is a historical thriller inspired by actual events and people: the 1887 massacre of Chinese miners in remote and beautiful Hells Canyon, the middle-aged judge who went after their slayers, and the sham race-murder trial that followed. This American tragedy was long suppressed and the victims nearly forgotten; Deep Creek teams history and imagination to illuminate how and why, in a seamless, fast-moving tale of courage and redemption, loss and love. A dazzling new novel for fans of Leif Enger, Lisa See, and Ivan Doig.
Questions for Reading Groups
1. The story emerges from four actions: Lee asks Joe to lead an investigation; Henry asks Grace to come and help; after a ten-year absence, Grace agrees; and Joe consents to let Grace serve as river guide. What motives, evident and secret, impel these events?
2. Joe is a lawyer and an investigator, able to examine bits of evidence and find cause-and-effect patterns. But certain liars can fool him entirely. Why?
3. Grace is quick, intuitive, learned, and bitter. What are the sources of her frustrations?
4. At first, Lee Loi is cheerful, self-centered, and cocky. What are the sources of his confidence? Why are his views so conventional?
5. A refrain in Joe’s life is How much of that is true? The recurring answer: As much as you want it to be. Why are the crimes at Deep Creek so important to him?
6. On the return journey to Deep Creek, we learn that Grace has second sight and strange abilities. How does this side of her affect her relations with others, especially Joe?
7. When and why does Lee begin to change? What role does he play after the river trips?
8. When do the three investigators truly become a team?
9. How do the Chinese miners behave, as individuals and as a group? Are they strange, alien, or clannish, as their detractors claimed? What aspects of their lives are most surprising?
10. Duty and honor take many forms. Is Joe a patriot? Is Jackson? Is Grace a good daughter? Is Nell? Why will Dow and Yap never break their promise to Elder Boss?
11. Why is Libby Leland so calculating and controlling? Why is she so successful?
12. Why is Blue Evans such a natural leader of men? What were his motives at Deep Creek?
13. How would Vollmer tell this story? How would Libby?
14. Why are so many of the characters wanderers, or exiles? What makes a family?
15. After the trial, each character experiences a process of compensation. Explain.
Notes on the Characters: Fact and Fiction by Dana Hand
In portraying Joe Vincent, we built on fact. The events of his early life, travels, businesses, and political career are all true. The Sam Yup Company did hire Vincent (then a Lewiston police judge) to investigate the killings at Deep Creek. We altered his age and his family life. In 1887, the real Joseph K. Vincent was sixty-five years old. In 1888, he left Lewiston to run the Cottonwood Hotel, then settled in Mount Idaho as a justice of the peace. He and Elizabeth Leland had ten children. She survived his 1909 death. His place of burial is unknown.
Grace Sundown is fictional, but her life parallels that of several female métis leaders in the West, such as Helen Piotopowaka Clarke and Suzette LaFlesche Tibbles. We used historical research to create Grace’s experiences at Lapwai, Missouri, Louisiana, Montana, and Oregon.
The historical Lee Loi left few records. Newspaper reports and government files connect him to the 1887–88 Deep Creek investigation. The Chinese Educational Mission of Hartford, Connecticut, was also real. We used historical research to present Lee’s years in Canton, Hartford, New Haven, and San Francisco.
Little is known about the Chinese miners. Only ten of them were identified by name, indicating their origins in the districts in and around Canton (now Guangzhou). To recover their lives we drew upon historical research and consulted experts in Chinese language and custom.
Nell Vincent is fictional, though the Vincents had an infant daughter named Nellie.
Dow and Yap are also fictional, drawn from research on Chinese mining camps in Idaho.
As a boy, Jackson Sundown (Waaya-Tonah-Toetsis-Kahn) fought in the Nez Perce War, escaped into Canada, and spent years in exile as a wanted man. After his return to Montana, he made a living as a horse breeder and champion rodeo rider.
Georges Sundown is fictional.
We based Henry Stanton on one of Lewiston’s earliest and most admired physicians, Henry Stainton (pronounced Stanton), a native of Devon, England, and an Oxford graduate. We altered his frontier family life to include Grace. He did serve as mayor and coroner, and he helped arrange the treaty that established Lewiston on the Idaho shore.
Mary Stanton is fictional. The historical Mary Stainton had three children, and one of them, Robert, died from injuries sustained after a fall in 1884.
Alonzo Leland was a well-known editor and booster in the Northwest; we based our character on research in historical records and the Lewiston Teller.
Elisabeth Leland Vincent is fictional. Marriage and childbirth dates for the actual Elizabeth Leland indicate that she was pregnant before J. K. Vincent wed her, on December 24, 1865 — since Joseph S. Vincent was born on April 24, 1866.
John Vollmer was the wealthiest man in north Idaho. He controlled businesses across the Pacific Northwest, and he helped to build railways to Lewiston. His wife’s maiden name was Sallie Bingham. Their daughter Evangeline died in childhood, despite Dr. Stainton’s care. After the Deep Creek trial, John Vollmer contracted smallpox, but he lived to drive an electric car on Lewiston streets.
Bruce (Blue) Evans led the Deep Creek killers. Born in West Virginia, he followed the Oregon Trail and arrived in northeast Oregon in 1879. He probably killed the outlaw Tom Douglas for a stash of gold. After the Chinese massacre Evans was arrested and jailed in Joseph, Oregon, but he escaped and disappeared.
James Tigh Canfield was from Indiana and lived near Evans on Pine Creek. He and Evans may have hatched the plan to kill the Chinese miners. He was said to have vanished into Montana.
Homer LaRue was indicted for murder but never captured or reliably located.
Hiram Maynard also lived on Pine Creek and worked for Evans. He was indicted for murder, tried, and acquitted at the September 1888 trial in Enterprise, Oregon.
Hezekiah Hughes, also known as Carl, came from Kentucky. He too was indicted, tried, and acquitted at Enterprise.
Robert McMillan was fifteen in 1887. He was acquitted at Enterprise and soon after died of diphtheria. To his father, Robert confessed to witnessing the massacre, but not to taking part in it.
Frank Vaughan lived near Evans on Pine Creek. He turned state’s evidence against the other killers but later shifted the blame to Evans, Canfield, and LaRue. After the trial, he lived in the Wallowa region for many years before moving to California.
Senator Slater, Governor Pennoyer, Judge O’Sullivan, Frank McCully, and Thomas Humphreys are all historical figures, like the Lewiston merchants Robert Grostein and Abe Binnard.
Nez Perce: Nez PURSE
Métis: MAY-tee or May-TEE
Copyright © 2009 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Discussion questions written by Dana Hand.