A Small Part of History by Peggy Elliott
|A Small Part of History by Peggy Elliott|
|Category: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: The story of just one of the many wagon trains that hit the trail in the mid 1840s, told through the eyes of the women. From the naive and tomboyish Sarah, to the matriarch of the old campaigner's wife Mrs Stokes, every class and kind of woman has a viewpoint. The spinster, the widow, the wife, the daughter, the free woman and the slave. The reluctant traveller and the excited one. All will need every ounce of courage and fortitude. And they will need to learn to get along.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 304||Date: February 2008|
|Publisher: Headline Review|
Sarah won't tell us where she is now because my Papa always told me it was best to start a story at the beginning… [and] it all really began back in June of 1845.
Back then, the Springers were in Idaho, with sunlight pouring through the poplars and people gathering in the summer kitchen, which was little more than an extended verandah – one wall and a roof, three sides open to the breeze and allowing the overspill of folks into the yard, and the orchard and the meadows. A verandah large enough to hold an oak table that would seat a crowd at harvest time – which the Springers needed because John Springer had just about the most prosperous farm in Vermillion County.
Blessed in that regard, he was blessed with many friends and good neighbours, and also with his children: Daniel and Matthew, then later, Willie, Joe & Sarah. Less blessed in other regards – it had taken two wives to give him this brood of happy, healthy, curious, exuberant offspring – and the two had been taken from him by the good Lord.
He'd brung the young ones up though. One way and another. Slightly wild and free, but respectful mostly. Wilful certainly – but that isn't always a bad quality.
Except when your one daughter is approaching womanhood, 15 years old but still thinking like an extra brother to the others, and then you bring a third wife into the household.
Sarah and Rebecca did not get on. That was to be expected. Rebecca certainly expected it, so she tried very hard… and got nowhere. At best short-lived sullen uneasy truces were called for a while.
Then, that day in June 1845 John Springer comes home and tells the rest of the family: we're going to Oregon.
Just like that. Over a thousand miles by ox-drawn wagon over unknown country. A one-way trip into the future.
Only John Springer never really did anything just like that. Sarah acknowledges he must have thought it and planned it and planned against it for quite a while before deciding. Even then it took months of planning and organising, selling off the farm, working what to take, buying wagons and stocking up before they could depart.
If Sarah was for the trip from the very first, it was because she knew Rebecca was against it. But this wasn't a trip. The Oregon Trail has the historians have come to know it was a long hard slog of months upon months. It became a way of life for those committed to the trail – one in which they eventually could see no further than the end of the next day or maybe the one after – one in which the dream of the section they'd get (they're even giving them to women) slowly sank under the mud-rutted wheels of the wagons, and the fear of the unknown, but mostly under the sheer drudgery of live on the road.
The Springers planned and organised – but they had no more idea what they were letting themselves in for than anyone else who loaded up a wagon in the mid 1840s and headed west. They snook in their luxuries with no real concept of what they'd be willing to discard – or able to pick up – along the way.
Peggy Elliot was initially inspired to write this tale by coming across Lillian Schissel's Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey – an inspiration that found a firm footing in her own cross-country ski-ing of routes that crossed the original trails. This is a fiction, but one firmly rooted in the facts – so far as they are known – of those pioneer forages across the great divide.
She adopts Schissel's notion that the few women who went west on the wagon trains – and they were by far the minority in those early days – undertook not the same journey as their menfolk, but a parallel one. She has one character put it into words that the men were travelling towards a hope, the women away from a home.
In accepting the difference, she opts to tell not only the women's stories – but all the stories of this one train, but only from the women's perspective. She does so in a fractured telling. We start with Sarah's voice recording the past. Then without warning or indicator we're slipped into a third person narrative. This jarred.
Then – but with fair warning – we're listening to Sarah again. Again, she's interrupted by the narrator. This reader was getting more than a bit irritated by these switching viewpoints – especially because Sarah's voice is so strong, and the narrator bland and detached by comparison.
Another voice arrives on scene with an extract from The journal of Rebecca Springer. Where Sarah speaks directly to camera, Rebecca's words are clearly those of a diarist, writing in the hope that it will be read – if only by her to refresh her memory for her grandchildren.
It took me a fair time into the book to accept the nature of the spinning. Once I had, however, I could see its merits. Other voices would be added along the way until eventually you get a very visual picture of events. That's not as big a contradiction as it sounds. Watching films or television, we're very used to switching character viewpoints with a change of camera angle… and as the feel for the west builds up, and images from those films and old TV series fill in the blanks, and the various authors give us their reactions, their scents and smells and prejudices, what results is overwhelmingly real and three dimensional.
Part of this is because using the different characters allows the author to focus on whatever aspect of trail life, past life, hoped-for future life, most touched each woman in turn thus broadening the experience we have. Some women were brave – like the young Sarah, eager to ride out on every hunt, or stride into the river to fish. Or stoic – like Rebecca – there to do and defend her heroic husband's every well-thought decision. Or skittish – like the newly married Lettie, who never wanted to come… and won't stay the trial. Or frail – like the pregnant Cora, confined to her wagon (though hers isn't the only child-in-the-making hitching a free ride to the future). There are those with book-learning and those with bush-craft. The god-fearing and the god-loving and the god-forsaking. They each have a different take.
Peggy Elliot doesn't give them all a full voice in her story – but we catch snippets of all of their characters and concerns.
The pleasure in the book is the detail. Notions that it takes a quorum of four for a woman to maintain her modesty whilst doing the business on an open plain – three to form the curtain, and one to do what's necessary. The idea that you can teach children all they need to know from the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare – and that Shakespeare is the greater loss when the wagon turns over. In the real relationships between the travellers and the Native Americans they encounter on the trail…the good and the bad, but very little of the ugly. Fear and distrust, often outweighed by curiosity and commerce. The recipes – for foodstuffs and for medicines.
And taking pleasure you come to care. At every turn there is a disaster. No drama. Just a death. Or a hanging. Or a banishment. Or another death. Then one more. People die by all manner of means. The weather, a conflict, accidents of various sorts, a shooting, a lynching – or maybe a judgement, childbirth, disease, injuries untreated, and those that don't respond to treatment.
That these things happen is the way of the trail – a fact reinforced by the other graves that they pass; that Rebecca records.
There is humanity also in the way individuals come to treat each other differently. A banding together – and a tearing apart. Relationships are at the core of the narrative: family relationships, but also those where the absence of a blood or legal connection is an irrelevance.
The further into the book, the more emotional it becomes – and it is hard to understand why. The writing remains simple. Understated in the extreme. And perhaps that is it. The people are real, because they are just what they are. In the real world, we meet people by watching them doing what they do, getting on with the everyday. The insights into their true souls that we have are generally few and far between – yet we come to love them. Perhaps the strength of Elliott's writing is in the telling it like it was. Hard. Cold. Bloody. Absurd. Very occasionally beautiful. Freeing. Emancipating (in that very gender-specific - and also race-specific) sense. But mostly drudgery, sharpened by pain, softened by hope.
Towards the end of the book hope is becoming a thing in very short supply, and the tension mounts as you begin to wonder if the whole expedition is doomed to final, cataclysmic failure. It's a splendid built up, with an emotionally exhausting conclusion.
It's rare for a book to irritate so much at its outset yet rally to completely captivate by the end. To that extent: it's a masterpiece.
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.
If you'd like a less fictional view of the West, I cannot recommend highly enough Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee by Dee Brown.
You can read more book reviews or buy A Small Part of History by Peggy Elliott at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy A Small Part of History by Peggy Elliott at Amazon.com.
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