As the story unfolds, Early is just fourteen years old, growing up on a farm in Iowa. His family is struggling to pay their mortgage due to the recent drought. The railroad company makes an offer to purchase their farm for a good sum of money, yet Early's father won't give in, hoping to pass down the farm to his oldest son, Adam. Early's uncle, Jess, who was raised by Early's parents, is older than Early, but more like a brother than an uncle. He has grand dreams of moving west to Pike's Peak to find gold. By doing so, he will be able to pay off the farm debt. No one is surprised when they find a note from Jess one morning telling them goodbye. However, they are surprised to find that the bank in town was robbed a few days before that, and that Jess is being considered a suspect. Now that he has run off, the authorities are sure he is the thief. Early can't get Jess out of his head and makes his own plans to head west. Things are much harder on the trail than he thought possible, but he makes the best of the situation, enjoying his time with Lizzie, the daughter of the family he was hired to help along the trail. There are many adventures along the way, as well as a bit of humor. Early still has one goal: reaching his uncle, despite what he is hearing from others when he starts asking after him.
This book included actual photographs and sketches of various aspects of life along the westward trail and the Colorado Gold Rush. Including these visual aids will be such a help to tween readers who may not be able to envision certain elements of this story because it is so different form our lives now. Sometimes historical fiction seems too difficult - so full of information and set in such an unfamiliar time period - that my students give up on it easily. Hard Gold is a very fast read and truly targeted at my fourth and fifth grade readers who should be able to understand the story and enjoy this period in our nation's history. While the ending seemed a bit predictable to me as an adult reader, it was still satisfying, and my student readers may not have the same feeling about the ending.