way-westThe Way West

A. B. Guthrie, Jr.

William Sloane Associates, 1949

This story about a wagon train to Oregon was not what I expected. First of all, let me explain that I read this for the Decades Challenge (1940’s). I’d added a western into the mix for variety sake. Even though it won a Pulitzer I thought it would be a cowboy and indian shoot-em-up type book. I’m happy to tell you it is not.

This is the story of people going on a wagon train to Oregon in 1845. I should say that at the beginning of the book it’s the story of the men going to Oregon. The story opens with the main character, Lije Evans, who is just playing in his head with the idea of joining the ever growing number of people coming to his hometown of Independence, Missouri, with the sole purpose of forming trains bound for the free land in Oregon.

There’s quite a cast of characters milling around, each with his own reason to go. In addition to Lije there is:

  • Dick Summers who was a former mountain man. His wife has just died and he is talked into joining the train as it’s pilot.
  • Tadlock who is the organizer/power-hungry, soon to be captain of the group. He never quite learns that people won’t follow someone blindly. Henry McBee is Tadlock’s sidekick. He’s basically just dirty and scummy.
  • Curtis Mack is wealthier than most but whose lust hurts others. And there is Charles Fairman who is going west for the sake of his child who, at five, has always had “the fever”.
  • Bryd with his “woman” and ten children can barely afford to go but it’s their only hope for a better life. And Reverend Weatherby who has even less but he feels called to preach in the west.

That is just a few of the male characters. For the first eight or nine chapters there is very little about the women on the train. But as the train moves mile after torturous mile, the story of the women begins to come alive. I want to share some of the passages I found meaningful. This one is of Lije Evans as he thinks of his wife Rebecca

“Evans had an uneasy feeling that he couldn’t realize, ever, what it was to a woman to give up her home. They were finer drawn than men, women were, mixed more in their thinking, so that you couldn’t tell what went on in their heads. A woman might hate moving because of leaving her marigolds.”

As the book develops we begin to know more about Rebecca and Judith and Mercy and the other women and men. The author lets us see what they are thinking and experiencing and what their hopes are. But overall, this trip was physically and emotionally exhausting for everyone. On rare occasions they stopped the train for a day.

“The question came and went, leaving the thought that today was a day of relaxation and play for all except the women. The men and boys climbed the rock, and children romped, and even the oxen . . . had a chance to rest their feet. . . . Only here were the little, draining businesses of rubbing and scuffing and wringing out and hanging on a line.”

Looking back at this from the 21st century it all seems so unfair and the trip pointless. But it isn’t my history; it’s the history of my ancestors. The author does a good job of trying to help us understand the motivation and thinking of these pioneers. The writing and the dialogue both sound as if they could have taken place in that time period. That helps add to the purpose of the story. A very good read that I can recommnd to those of you who like historical fiction and, especially of this time period of western American expansion.