by Sandra Dallas
First sentence: “The two sisters leaned forward, their hadns flat against the rear of the handcart, waiting, fidgeting, impatient.”
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When this book came into the store last week, they all looked at the jacket flap copy, said “It’s Mormon,” and then looked pointedly in my direction. I took a look at the book, said “It’s the Martin Handcart Company,” and took one home.
See, my ancestors — my grandmother’s grandmother, I think — came over with the Martin Handcart company. I listened to my grandmother tell me stories of hardship and survival. It’s part of my heritage. And even though I’ve never picked up a Sandra Dallas book in my life (um, she’s popular, right?), I needed to see what this woman — someone who is outside of my “tribe”, for lack of a better word — was going to do with my heritage.
The basic story is that of the Martin Handcart Company — a group of immigrants from Great Britain (and Scandinavia, something which she omitted much to my disappointment), who for economic reasons made and pushed handcarts across the plains from Iowa to Utah. It was an ill-fated trip from the start: the handcarts were made of green wood, and weren’t very sturdy; they left late; and winter in Wyoming came early. Out of the 650 that started, more than 100 died before making it to Salt Lake City.
Dallas focuses on four women: Anne, whose husband is a member but who has refused to join the church; Jessie, an unmarried woman with two brothers making it over on their own; Ella, a pregnant woman who is crossing with her husband and sister; and Louisa a young wife of one of the company’s leaders. Their stories never really intersect — I kind of was expecting them to, given the title — but, rather, the narrative switches to follow each one as they cross the plains and experience trials and hardships and setbacks and miracles.
While it wasn’t a great novel — she never really got much tension going, and it seemed as if she was just checking things off a list (mention Joseph Smith? Check. Polygamy? Check. Hardship? Check.) — it was a good one, and she did treat the Mormons sympathetically. I liked how she had characters along the whole spectrum of faith: men who were overbearing and overly zealous to men who were sympathetic and supportive; women who were doubters, ones who were strong (both physically and mentally), and ones who were blindly following their husbands. It gave a more nuanced picture of our faith — unlike books in the past, we are neither all always gung-ho about the edicts we’ve been given, nor are we all dissenters.
It’s not a great book, but it’s a good one, something which I wasn’t expecting.