Wednesday, March 03, 2010

West to the Sun

West to the Sun by T. G. Good
(Outskirts Press / 1-432-75162-X / 978-1-432-75162-3 / December 2009 / 262 pages / $16.95 / Amazon $12.20)

Reviewed by Celia Hayes for PODBRAM

It is a good omen for the cover of a book intended to tell the story of the great emigrant trails across the far western frontier to feature an illustration of a covered wagon pulled by the appropriate numbers of the appropriate draft animal. The cover art for all too many works of fiction about the California/Oregon trails appear to feature a huge covered wagon hitched to two horses, an arrangement as impossible in practice as it was historically inaccurate. The unvarnished fact was that most emigrants crossing to California or Oregon prior to the Civil War hauled their worldly goods there in relatively small wagons, pulled by at least three yoke of draft oxen – for it was a brutally wearing journey, where there was often not much of a road at all, and horses were too fragile and expensive to serve as team animals. Having written my own novel about a wagon-train party, venturing to California in the early years, I can attest that having an accurate cover is a promising start for readers hoping to learn more about the wagon-train emigrants.

This young-adult historical, follows the Symons family – father Jedediah, mother Mary, eleven-year old Jeremiah, little sister Bitsy and an assortment of old friends and new-made acquaintances, as they leave their farm in Tennessee and take to the trail for Oregon. They do so with the advice of Jedediah’s brother Peter, a knowledgeable veteran of the far west, in the days when everything west of The Mississippi-Missouri was a trackless wilderness. In fact, the character of Uncle Peter affords a graceful means of acquainting young Jeremiah and his family with many of the old mountain men, such as Jim Bridger, and of relaying bits of western lore, and practical wisdom of the trail. The family is also religiously devout, in a way that is true to the historical record, although displaying a more 20th century degree of tolerance towards other faiths.

In a fairly straightforward way, this account fills in many little details of the wagon-train pioneer’s journey: the politicking which went on, all along the trail as bands of travelers elected leaders, found fault with them and elected new leaders, dealt with lawbreakers, split apart into more congenial groups and negotiated a safe passage for their families and wagons with potentially hostile Indians. West to the Sun is also a full and heartbreaking account of fatalities from accident and disease encountered by the Symons party. It was a rare wagon party that did not leave a member, or sometimes several members of it behind, in a lonely and unmarked grave along The Platte or The Sweetwater.

I would criticize this book on only one account, which would be that the narrative voice sounds a little too modern, occasionally dropping into 20th century turns of speech which struck me as more than a little jarring. This would have been a quite satisfactory read if Jeremiah had sounded a little more like a 19th century voice; if his narration sounded more like Tom Sawyer’s or Huck Finn’s – or even Jaimie McPheeters.

See also: The Deepening Review
Celia's Review at BNN

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