No one much expects Rusty to go out in the desert beyond Rhyolite, a small mining town in Nevada’s Amargosa Desert, and come home with the Mother Lode. No one, that is, except his two good Chinese friends, Lo Fat and Lee, and maybe his clever donkey Zeke. After all, Rusty’s is pretty much a one-man operation and even his digging tools don’t get much use (hence his name). But sure enough, on his first trip Rusty discovers a strongbox buried near a spring and in it enough nuggets of pure gold to pretty much buy the entire state.
This is a wonderful story. Not only does it give a real sense of what mining and prospecting were like in the days of the western gold rush, it also has a moral core: the division that inevitably arose between the Chinese immigrants who were brought to the West to build the Transcontinental Railroad, and the miners, who generally didn’t want anything to do with them—or their children. How Lo Fat and Lee gradually win the respect, and the affection, of the people of Rhyolite is moving, and timely. The black and white illustrations that begin the chapters are clever and engaging. The story moves briskly and convincingly.
But what really makes the story move, and moving, is the social dynamics that are at play— between Rusty, the old-timer everyone has given up on, the Chinese cook and his son, who no one even wants to acknowledge, and the basic good nature and democratic spirit of the West that needs a little jolt to surface, but which ultimately triumphs over suspicion and prejudice.