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 — went across the plains 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, a fact Dallas 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 of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but who has refused to join the church herself; Jessie, an unmarried woman with two brothers making the trip 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 — Dallas 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 and Suffering? 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 the way many books have portrayed Mormons in the past, we are neither all always gung-ho about the edicts we’ve been given, nor are we all dissenters. And that, in itself, was refreshing.
It’s not a great book, but it’s a good one, something I wasn’t expecting.
Rated: Mild. There are a few references to being damned and hell (the place), and to the physical suffering, but no actual swearing.