Book review: ‘Sipping Whiskey in a Shallow Grave,’ by Mark Mitten
Special to the Daily
The Old West ethos of Colorado’s spirited past is never too far away, even in our modern world. Around nearly every corner is a reminder of the dynamic history of our frontier state, whether it’s an amber-colored mine tailing, a tumbled-down homestead or a rusted mile of barbed-wire fencing. And even though the sophisticated inhabitants of contemporary Colorado live cheek by jowl with the state’s history, the allure of those glory days has not faded.
In his recent book “Sipping Whiskey in a Shallow Grave,” author Mark Mitten deftly recreates the gritty charm of Colorado in the late 1800s, complete with bank robbers, cattle rustlers and cowhands, all interspersed with famous real-life characters from some of Colorado’s most notorious environs. Evocative imagery of Colorado’s roller-coaster seasonal changes places the reader firmly into each setting, and the clever use of suggestive smells and sights set a very cinematic stage. Included in “Top Ten Recent Frontier Fiction of 2013,” the novel is permeated with vivid depictions of Colorado’s varied landscapes, including familiar settings such as Leadville, Grand Lake and Ward. But, unlike many tales of that era, “Sipping Whiskey in A Shallow Grave” pays the greatest honor to Colorado’s legacy of ranching.
In 1887, the state was at a crossroads, and vast quantities of previously open rangelands were being ringed with fences, impacting the livelihoods of many stalwart young cowboys, including some who knew nothing other than their transient lifestyles. Employing easy, rustic dialogue and seamlessly converging the various story arcs into a dramatic climax, Mitten awakens images of “Gunsmoke” and “The Magnificent Seven,” painting thrilling scenes of vigilante justice, with posses on the trail of outlaws on the run, as well as the more mundane realities of frontier living, namely the dusty drudgery of rough vaquero living, with its campfire cooking, saddle sores and dangerous stampedes.
Room is made for the gentler sex, and romances blossom, pulling several saddle-weary cowpunchers into the slower lifestyles of homesteading. The likes of Baby Doe Tabor, Doc Holliday and Father Dyer make appearances, anchoring the narrative in the real history of the tumultuous era.
Certain to be a favorite of equestrians, modern ranchers and history buffs, “Sipping Whiskey in a Shallow Grave” is a reminder of the divergent yet interconnected histories and topographies of Colorado.
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