In February 1852, notices are posted all over Chicago: “If you are an adventuresome young woman of high moral character and fine health, are you willing to travel to California in search of a good husband?” It sounds perfect to Maggie, so she and her little girl sign up, along with 43 other women, for the California-bound wagon train led by two ministers. Maggie isn’t looking for a husband, though—she has other reasons for wanting to leave Chicago.
Of all the people traveling together, the main players in the story are a single dozen: Maggie, Mary, Sadie, Bessie, Evaline, Penn, Lavinia, Winny, and Dora, as well as ministers Joseph and William, and William’s wife, Caroline. Other character’s are mentioned in passing when the story demands it, and serve more as window dressing than actual members of the wagon train.
Having skimmed through early reviews posted on Goodreads, it’s clear that I had a markedly different reaction to the story than other readers of this book. As such, the thoughts shared in this review are definitely going to be in the minority—because I didn’t like this book at all.
The beginning was promising enough—what was Maggie so afraid of? Why did she need to leave Chicago? I was eager to find out, but was somewhat surprised that those answers were given in chapter three. So much for milking the suspense, but okay… it created a bond between two of the women, so it served that purpose well. Maggie now has an ally on the wagon train. Let the journey begin! I was excited to see the descriptions of the life on the trail, and felt a sense of trepidation, knowing without the summary telling me so that some of the women weren’t going to make it.
I expected events of epic proportion, with descriptions so vivid as to make me feel I was traveling across endless prairie, mountain, or desert right alongside them. I wanted to feel their hopes and dreams as if they were my own, and have my heart shattered when devastation struck. I wanted to feel their despair when someone was lost, and I wanted to celebrate in the triumph of those who made it.
None of that happened.
Instead of the sweeping saga I expected, I got something more akin to historical fiction lite. All the elements were available, but what could have been grand was a watered down version so simplified as to be completely and utterly boring. The characters were two-dimensional, and even though I wanted to, it was impossible to take them seriously. On three different occasions, things became known about certain travelers that should have gotten them booted from the group immediately; instead, all would be forgiven within moments and the group would keep on traveling. I felt this simply wasn’t believable, given the social mores of the time, and made revelations of those secrets completely pointless. Why did they exist, if there was no price to pay? Drama for drama’s sake?
I’ve spoken before about the importance of being shown something in a story, rather than told, and how—in my opinion—telling can completely ruin a story. She did this, then he did that, so she did something else, and…. no. Just NO. Bring me along with you on a wondrous adventure, don’t just tell me about it.
A story like this inevitably deals with loss of life, and when it’s done well, it has a gut-wrenching impact on the reader. Unfortunately, each death (or dangerous moment, for that matter) was too easily predictable. I had certain members pegged for death practically from the start, and wasn’t surprised when it happened. Certain losses should have felt like a crushing blow, but when the people directly affected by that death essentially shrug their shoulders and move on within a few days… what, I’m supposed to care, when they barely did? And how can I be upset about a dangerous thing happening, when it’s so easily overcome in often-beneficial ways?
The end of the book began with the group days away from the end of their journey, where a predictable thing happened that had an equally predictable result. What remained of the group arrived at their destination, and foreseeable things happened. An epilogue followed, the book finally came to an end, and I deleted it from my Kindle with a sigh of relief that it was over.
I don’t know. A lot of people loved this book, so maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m a historical fiction snob, who has exceedingly high expectations for books in this genre, and I’m too easily dissatisfied when those expectations aren’t met.
Or maybe… it’s not me at all. Maybe I have completely reasonable expectations of quality that simply were not fulfilled in this book. Maybe this book had the potential to be outstanding, and only achieved mediocrity.
Personally, I think it’s the latter.
About the Book
From the bestselling author of Prayers for Sale, an inspiring celebration of sisterhood on the perilous wagon-trail west
“If you are an adventuresome young woman of high moral character and fine health, are you willing to travel to California in search of a good husband?”
It’s February 1852, and all around Chicago Maggie sees the postings soliciting “eligible women” to travel to the gold mines of Goosetown. A young seamstress with a small daughter and several painful secrets, she has nothing to lose.
So she joins forty-three other women and two pious reverends on the dangerous 2,000-mile journey west. None of them are prepared for the hardships they face on the trek through the high plains, mountains, and deserts. Or for the triumphs of finding strengths they did not know they possessed. And not all will make it.
As Maggie gets to know the other women, she soon discovers that she’s not the only one looking to leave dark secrets behind. And when her past catches up with her, it becomes clear a band of sisters will do whatever it takes to protect one of their own.
About the Author
Award-winning author SANDRA DALLAS was dubbed “a quintessential American voice” by Jane Smiley, in Vogue Magazine. She is the author of The Bride’s House, Whiter Than Snow, Prayers for Sale and Tallgrass, among others. Her novels have been translated into a dozen languages and optioned for films. She is the recipient of the Women Writing the West Willa Award and the two-time winner of the Western Writers of America Spur Award. For 25 years, Dallas worked as a reporter covering the Rocky Mountain region for Business Week, and started writing fiction in 1990. She lives with her husband in Denver, Colorado.