The Book: Let’s start with a classic of 90s fiction for kids, Across The Wide and Lonesome Prairie: The Oregon Trail Diary of Hattie Campbell, 1847, by Kristiana Gregory, 1997.
I loved, loved, loved this book as a kid. Loved it. I must have read it twenty times and forced my dad to read it as well. Part of this was because it coincided so neatly with my fifth-grade unit on the Oregon Trail, but part of it was because I was just utterly fascinated with people walking all the way to Oregon. Walking! On their feet! And riding in bumpy wagons! For months on end! Sometimes when I get crabby about having to walk a long way to the mall, I think about people walking to Oregon for six months and then I feel ashamed of myself. And the Oregon Trail seems to be the kind of thing that’s relegated to children’s books and really awful romance novels, the kind you can buy three for a dollar at used bookstores—why is that? It’s such an interesting story!
But let’s move on to the book itself. Hattie is thirteen years old, as we learn on the very first page. One of the more aggravating things about reading Dear America books as an adult is way things like ages and relationships are shoehorned in at the very beginning, but that is fairly par for the course in kids’ books. Anyway, Hattie and her family live in Booneville, “Missoura,” which Google tells me is in central Missouri and now has 8,319 residents, and hosts the “primary breeding farm for the Budweiser Clydesdales,” which is an interesting claim to fame.
As is fairly common in Oregon Trail books, her father wants to leave and her mother doesn’t, although her mother’s reasoning—that she doesn’t want to leave the graves of her four dead daughters who died the previous summer—is fairly sound. But they sell the house and take the steamboat to Independence (familiar to anyone who played Oregon Trail as the jumping-off point). Dear America books tend to be great for including actual facts, more so than other non-series fiction, and it’s nice to see allusions to Polk’s Manifest Destiny and Lanford Hasting’s Emigrant’s Guide. They hang out in Independence for a bit where they meet the Anderson family and their five daughters all named after trees (Hazel, Holly, Laurel, Olive, and Cassia, for those of you looking for baby name suggestions that are surprisingly on-point for 2015). They meet up with Hattie’s new best friend, Pepper, and her twin brother Wade, which are also names that would fit in shockingly well in a preschool class nowadays, I imagine.
We’re on page 26 before we have our first tragic death (well, in-text death, rather than Hattie’s sisters dying before the book starts), which is pretty good for Dear America, which tend to pile on the tragedy. It’s realistic—don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining—but sometimes I like to pick a book and see how long it will be before someone dies tragically. At page 26 in this one, it’s far back in the stakes. Anyway, a set of six-year-old twins wander off on the prairie and are lost. A couple pages after that, Hattie discovers an elderly woman in the train (okay, elderly for the time, which I imagine is in her fifties) is a kleptomaniac who steals other peoples’ crap and stows it in her wagon.
We’re not even to the halfway mark in the book before there’s another tragedy, which sucks and is partially Hattie’s fault, when she and Pepper pick a bunch of vegetables and accidentally pick some water hemlock instead of wild parsnip. Cassia, one of the Girls Named After Trees, dies after eating a couple bites, and two young boys die, and Pepper’s brother and another boy eat a little bit and are horribly ill. (Another thing that makes me feel like a soft denizen of the internet age is that I cannot imagine walking to Oregon, nor doing it while pregnant, nor while caring for someone who ate some poison hemlock and is now in a coma. I don’t think that’s something physicians recommend for coma patients these days.)
Off they go, meeting buffalo and seeing Mormons and being afraid of Indians in a pretty period-appropriate-but-not-racist way, which is nice to see. They go along, passing Chimney Rock (another Oregon Trail-the-game landmark), Hattie’s aunt is pregnant and miserable, people in the wagon train fight with one another, the klepto continues to steal crap and make enemies, and Pepper falls in love with a seventeen-year-old boy named Gideon. This is another thing that grinds me about this book—it was not particularly common for 14-year-olds to get married, even in 1847. It happened, certainly, but the average age of first marriage was something more like 20-21 for women and a bit older for men. But it’s a romantic subplot in a children’s book, and I don’t imagine many thirteen-year-olds (even fictional ones) would be particularly interested in the marriage of a woman seven or eight years older than themselves, so we’ll let this one slide. A few days later Gideon and Pepper have a romantic wedding that Pepper attends barefoot with a crown of wildflowers in her hair, which is also pretty on-trend for 2015.
Hattie’s seven-year-old brother breaks his arm, she develops a gigantic crush on Pepper’s brother Wade, and they keep walking along. Hattie befriends another couple in the wagon train, a very large women and her husband with no legs, who are named the Biggs, and tells them all about the klepto woman, and they fill her in. Apparently, Mrs. Klepto and her husband had planned to go to Oregon with their two adult sons, and a few days before they left, their house burned to the ground and their sons died as well. So she’s trying to fill the horrid hole in her heart with other people’s stuff. Which is pretty awful and actually does a good job of its intended message, which is “Even if other people do bad things, sometimes they have horrible things happen to them and are just mentally screwed up.”
On and on they go, and by the end of summer they’re all exhausted and dirty and tired and not even to Oregon yet. Oxen are dying, people are dying, Hattie’s aunt still has not had her baby (and as miserable as it is to be nine months pregnant in August, I imagine it’d be ten times worst to be nine months pregnant and walking across the country in August without the benefit of air conditioning or good shoes or medical care), and they keep having to dump stuff. Hattie’s mother leaves behind her wedding dress and all her mementoes of Hattie’s dead sisters, in another pretty gut-wrenching moment that didn’t strike me at all as a kid but is just awful to read as an adult. But then, Mrs. Klepto’s husband gets frustrated with the endless walking and the heat and steps over an enormous cliff into a river two hundred feet below. Everyone discovers that Mrs. Klepto is a thief, find their stuff in her wagon full of crap, and they decide to let her continue with the wagon train instead of abandoning her in the desert.
Hattie’s aunt finally has her baby while they are fording a river, with classic baby timing, although it seems to be a pretty speedy delivery since the baby is there within a few minutes. The baby is named River Ann, and now I’ve finally put my finger on what it was that made me believe as a 13-year-old that children ought to have Meaningful Names that Said Something About Their History—the unending sea of historical fiction I imbibed as a kid. But Mrs. Bigg, the large woman, is swept away while crossing the river, which is an interesting if depressing way to introduce the bookending of life and death into a children’s book.
They cross the mountains, and a bunch more animals die and the wagons give up the ghost and they’re left just bringing what they can carry and have the oxen haul on their backs. As is a running theme in these books, I like to think about how well I would do carrying all my earthly goods in a satchel in my hand, and I think “not well.” I get irritated when my purse is too heavy because I have too many pens and lipsticks and coins in it, so possibly the Oregon Trail is not for me.
But they make it to the Willamette Valley in October, and Hattie packs up her journal for a few months. At Christmas, in her last entry, everyone is setting up tents and Pepper is pregnant and they’re taking out homesteads. Hattie forgives Mrs. Klepto for her thieving ways, and that’s as close as we get to a happy ending in the Dear America books.
The epilogues were almost always my favourite part as a kid, and I wished that all books came with tidy epilogues. Pepper and Gideon have seven sons, Hattie and Wade marry but are unable to have children of their own, and Hattie’s aunt has three more sons and one of her granddaughters grows up to become a survivor of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
This is one of those books that was deeply different to me as a kid. Reading this at ten years old was more “I would have loved to do that! I would have been so good! I could have walked all that way and I wouldn’t have bitched or moaned or picked any poison hemlock!” But as an adult, it’s much more “There is no earthly way I could be persuaded to do that.” And it’s basically a parade of death and horrible happenings, even in a children’s book! (Again: par for the course in Dear America books, so I don’t know why I’m surprised.)
Rating: I’ll give this one a solid B+/A-. It’s reasonably accurate for a kids’ book, pretty entertaining, and Hattie’s voice is charming and funny and relatable. My minor nitpicks aside, it’s a very solid entry into the Vault!