Austin, Texas resident David E. Hilton's debut novel Kings of Colorado is in turns heart breaking and uplifting. A novel that is not easy to describe while filled with tragedy and ultimately redemption. At its core, it is the tale of one man finally finding peace with a very brutal past decades later.
It was the summer of 1963 when the abusive world William Sheppard knew changed forever. He was thirteen and one time too many his father came home in a drunken rage and started terrorizing his family. When it was over, his father was near death because his thirteen year old son William Shepard had stabbed him multiple times with a pocket knife.
By September, thanks to the order of the court, William Sheppard was on his way from Chicago to the Swope Ranch Boy's reformatory in Colorado. The legendary reform school located near Gunnison, Colorado in a high mountain valley isolated from the world is to be his home for the next twenty four months. That is if he can survive the altitude of over thirteen thousand feet, the extreme weather, the other inmates, and the guards. Of all the threats the guards may be the worst threat as, with a couple of exceptions, they exist to abuse the boys in every way possible. The ranch sustains itself by using the boys as a cheap labor source to break and take care of the wild horses that are shipped in at regular intervals. The threats are many but the reality of life is put very simply by Warden Walter Barrow:
“We'll break you, Mr. Sheppard. Just like we break each of the animals outside. One step at a time.” (Page.22)
Those in charge use the natural environmental elements of the ranch being located in a valley above thirteen thousand feet, intimidation, weapons, and other factors to control the population. Days away from anywhere, knowing that to resist means being shot, etc. means that nobody is going anywhere. This prison may have beauty around it and nothing in terms of walls or guard towers but it is a lock down prison in every sense that matters.
What follows is a tale of William Sheppard during those brutal 24 months and the aftermath of his ordeals decades later. It is a harsh and unforgiving world that bears a striking resemblance to Lord of the Flies in a far different location. One wonders if it was pitched as that when the author was seeking representation and publication. If so, it was a truly perfect fit that encapsulates well what this novel is about.
An emotionally powerful book with both humor and sheer tragedy often mere lines of text apart, Kings of Colorado is a complex book that is very hard to define or explain in great detail without destroying the very story lines that serve as the fabric of the novel. It reads like a memoir with a voice far older than the author would appear, and yet there are elements of any good mystery fiction story. Crimes have been and are committed, there are several mysteries, and other elements could easily move the book into the mystery field.
Not for the squeamish or faint hearted, the graphic moments in this story of language and description fit well into the story. They are not added for shock value or to pad the word count. They are in there because they fit seamlessly into the text as a whole.
By the end of the book you will wonder if these events really did happen?
Kings of Colorado: A Novel
David E. Hilton
Simon & Schuster
Material supplied by the good folks of the Plano, Texas Public Library System.
For a very interesting interview with the author:
Kevin R. Tipple © 2011