Thursday, June 11, 2015

All We Left Behind, by Nancy Herman

Virginia Reed and the Donner Party
Author extraordinaire 
For some time I have wanted to review this wonderful book, but life kept intruding (marketing my own book, travel plans, celebrations of important birthdays, a wedding.)

I’ve read many books about the Donner Party, but All We Left Behind has preyed on my mind like no other book about this tragic event. Told through young  Virginia Reed’s point of view, it traces the trajectory of what begins as a hopeful journey to a promising new life but ends in disaster.

Virginia is twelve when the story opens in Springfield, Illinois the day the family is departing, along with the extended Donner family and others, setting out for Independence, where they plan to meet up with a larger wagon train, the Russell Company. The trip has been James Reed’s idea all along, and he’s the leader of this small group.

The first few weeks of the journey seem like an adventure until they reach Independence, Missouri, and learn Russell has gone on without them. James Reed misunderstood the meet-up date. This is the first time Virginia realizes that “Pa”, her adoptive father, can make mistakes. Despite his autocratic nature, she has idolized him, feeling he can do no wrong. The family is Methodist, and earlier, after she visited a Catholic church with a friend, he made it clear Catholicism was the wrong path. (Virginia has guiltily been hiding the rosary the friend gave her in her pocket.) Now, she wonders if Pa can be mistaken about Catholicism, too.

This is only the first mistake James Reed will make. They meet up with Russell, but later split up, the larger wagon train taking the tried and true path; the Reed and Donner group and a few others taking the Lansing cut-off, a supposed shortcut that will make up for lost time. Reed has misplaced faith in the book by Langford Hastings, but he is a leader type with the ability to persuade, and this leads to one stubborn mistake after another. Reed is also a proud man, traveling with his family in the largest wagon with the most luxurious contents (dubbed later, by resentful fellow travelers, as “the palace car.”) 

Before the trip is over, the car’s contents will join the many things “left behind”. Virginia's grandmother dies on the the trail. Another old man is abandoned by one of the other pioneers. All along the way, they encounter household goods, wagon wheels, relics of earlier pioneers who had to leave so much of what they valued behind. 

One of the strengths of the author’s writing is the way she shows Reed through Virginia’s eyes: a man of flaws and redeeming virtues. Virginia’s hero worship wavers, but her loyalty never does. In the space of a little over a year, she matures from a pre-teenager torn between homesickness and adventure to a young woman with knowledge far beyond her years.

The author’s setting details plunge a reader deeply into the experiences of these hapless travelers. She has clearly has done extensive research that shows in the authority of her storytelling without ever intruding as "information dump". One of the most haunting scenes is when the Reed family and their three wagons are crossing the Great Salt Desert. They are crossing alone, because the heaviness of the “palace car” has slowed them down and the others have gone ahead. Patty, Virginia’s younger sister spies three wagons in the distance.
         “I wonder why they’re so far off the trail,” Mama said. She added in a puzzled tone, “Their lead wagon looks nearly as big as our palace car.”
         I waved just as the girl beside a pony waved back. Milt waved both arms over his head in unison with a rider in the other wagon company.
         “They’re our mirror images,” he said wonderingly. “Even the horses are identical.”
         A slow chill ran down my spine. “You mean they’re us?”
         “Don’t look. Don’t look!” Mama’s voice trembled. “They aren’t
real. They’re a mirage.”

The Reeds join up with the others, but before long, things worsen as tempers and egos flair – as of course they would among a group of travelers who once had high hopes but have to deal instead with unforeseen difficulties that terrify them.

As a reader I found myself experiencing so many emotions -- tension, relief, humor, sympathy, even tears – as the writing pulled me deeper and deeper into Virginia’s world. While the story of the Donner party itself is remarkable, the author’s telling of Virginia’s story is equally remarkable. This is a book that bears more than one reading and should have a place in school libraries, both middle school and high school.

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Kenda Turner said...

Another book to put on the TBR list! Thanks, Elizabeth. This sounds like a really good read.

S.P. Bowers said...

This sounds fascinating, I'll have to look it up. I've always been a little fascinated by that group and what happened.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Kenda, it really is. I've read it more than once, and it's a book I'll read again, partly for the sheer pleasure of such fine writing.

S.P., I've always been fascinated by the Donner party, too. I've read many renderings, both fiction and non-fiction, but this book put me right in the experience in a way that others haven't.

Geo. said...

I was in Chico in 1970 and talked often with George Keithley while he was writing about the Donner party (I took his poetry class at Chico State). That year taught me much history about some of the families I'd known in my teen years (Bryants, Murphys mainly). Nancy Herman's book may offer a perspective I haven't encountered yet. Thanks for alerting me to it.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Hi, Geo. It's an excellent book that I think you will savor, since you are a poet. Her imagery and ability to express so much, so concisely, is amazing.

writing and living by Richard P Hughes said...

Thanks for the review. The subject of that book is definitely a fascinating one.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Richard, that subject has fascinated me for years. People know the sensational aspects of the ill-fated party, but not the human aspects. Nancy Herman brings the pioneers with their hopes and dreams and fears and dawning realizations to life. She really did a marvelous job.

Tanya Reimer said...

This sounds incredible! I can't wait to read it now!!!

Carol Riggs said...

This sounds chilling and fascinating, a great fictionalization of a great tragedy. Thanks for the review; I think you're right about it being a perfect book for school libraries.

Rosi said...

Really nice review. This is just such a good book. I hope a lot more people find it through posts like this.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Tanya, with your love of history, I think you'll like it.

Hi, Carol, thanks for coming by. Glad you agree that it's a good fit for school libraries. As a teenager I was interested in the Donner party, and I got most of my books at school or public libraries, so I think today's teenagers would find this book gripping.

Rosi, I agree. Such a good book. I still am blown away by the writing.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Tanya, with your love of history, I think you'll like it.

Hi, Carol, thanks for coming by. Glad you agree that it's a good fit for school libraries. As a teenager I was interested in the Donner party, and I got most of my books at school or public libraries, so I think today's teenagers would find this book gripping.

Rosi, I agree. Such a good book. I still am blown away by the writing.

Denise Covey said...

This book does sound amazing. Thanks for the review Elizabeth.
How did your Portugal trip go?

Nancy Herman said...

Mitty, thanks so much for the wonderful review of my book! I really appreciate all the kind words as well as the comments by your readers. You have to take credit, you know, for the many times you critiqued chapters and helped make the book better!

Geo, George Keithley's beautiful book,The Donner Party, which I read in the '70s, was the inspiration for my own book. His empathetic descriptions of different members of the Donner Party brought them to life for me, and made me want to bring them to life for more readers. I would have loved to have met him, or better yet, taken a poetry class from him, like you did.

Rachna Chhabria said...

All We Left Behind is joining the long list of books in my TBR pile. Like the cover and title a lot.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Denise, it's a wonderful book. As for the Portugal trip, I'll be posting about that on my Victorian Scribbles blog Tuesday. Monday my book is being released, so my posting will be about Imogene and the Case of the Missing Pearls. (Actually just an announcement of the release and where one can find it.)

Nancy, thank you for your comments, but your writing went way beyond anything we suggested in the group. It's a fabulous book.

Rachna, yes, I love the title, and I think the cover captured the haunting quality of Nancy's storytelling.

Geo. said...

Nancy, Thank you for responding to my comment. I found George Keithley to be a very pleasant man whose knowledge of poetry and poet's lives was nothing short of encyclopedic. His knack for placing works within contexts of history and politics made him a memorable teacher.