Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Book review: Heart of the Trail: The Stories of Eight Wagon Train Women by Mary Barmeyer O'Brien

In Mary Barmeyer O'Brien's slim volume, Heart of the Trail: The Stories of Eight Wagon Train Women, we are introduced to eight American frontierswomen who crossed this country by covered wagon.  Thousands of pioneers journeyed through the American West in the mid-1800s: most of the stories and histories are just that - "his stories," records kept and tales told by the men.  But the women kept journals too, and wrote many letters to their friends and families back home, and it is in their words that the human experience may be found.

Each of the eight women profiled in this book are very different from one another.  One honeymooned west, travelling cushily in an armchair in her wagon.  Another was a devoted mother, determined that her three children would survive the hazardous trip, made even more horrifying when her husband went insane on the journey.  One was an African-American woman, a freed slave, who ended up establishing Denver's first Sunday school.  Yet another nearly perished with her family when they were given wrong advice about where to cross near the Great Salt Lake. 

O'Brien has sketched lightly out what these amazing pioneer women's journeys must have been like, utilizing the women's own letters and diaries, and then extrapolating from secondary sources.  This isn't deep stuff - easily read, I could see this being used in middle schools for American history classes (do they teach American history in middle school?) - but it's quite interesting, a look at a chapter in our country's history from a point of view not often considered.  What's more, O'Brien lists her sources and this book is thus a good jumping-off point if folks want to explore the primary materials.

I recently crossed the country with Mr. Mouse, the dog and my most cherished possessions.  We did it in four days, in a pick-up truck and towing our car.  It was a long drive, nerve-wracking during the Midwestern cities' rush-hours and while hurtling down I-80 W into Salt Lake City, and I was so relieved when our journey ended.  My trip can't compare to what these eight women - and the multitudes of others like them - went through during their emigrations, but I believe I can understand their joy and gratitude when their journeys finally ended.

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