It’s finally time!!! I hope you guys have been waiting with intense anticipation for these books, because I certainly have.
Amanda, Candice Ransom, 1984.
In case anyone is unfamiliar with the Sunfire series, you are in for a REAL TREAT. These were a series of romance novels published by Scholastic in the 80s, which basically paved the way for all teen historical romance of the following two decades. They’re extremely derivative and often very unimaginative, and they almost all follow the same exact formula: very pretty young woman in interesting historical period is forced to choose between two attractive suitors. Frequently there is also some kind of interesting conflict forcing her hand as well. If you have never experienced these books as a teenager, you’re missing out on the absolute crack-like addictiveness of them, and we probably sound insane because being quite honest: they are not great books. But they are intensely nostalgic and frequently hilarious, and they are the reason we have so many actually-excellent YA historical books. They sold like hotcakes.
Unfortunately, they were deemed to be trash almost immediately, and consequently they can be hard to find! Lots of libraries trashed them (including my childhood library, much to my extreme disappointment, because I would have gladly taken them off their hands. I probably took them out about twenty times each in my youth anyway) and they can be hard to find in used bookstores as well. Luckily, that is why we can buy used books online, so I can bring you all of these delightfully stupid joy. And on a side note, this book once belonged to “Jami Conley” as a birthday gift from the Mackinaw PTO, and she wrote her name in it several times including “Jami – n – Jason” in true 1980s fashion. It’s amazing.
Anyway, one of the things these books pioneered was “young women during interesting historical periods” as a plot device. This one is the first in the series, and it’s about the Oregon Trail, and here I will pause to ask why this is not a popular theme for adult books like it is in children’s books! Why? There could be so many interesting stories! Like this one! And while I’m at it, check out the cover. Amanda looks like a CHILD, is wearing what looks like frosted lipstick, and you know she’s going to end up with the rough-and-tumble Western guy because they’re walking together on the cover. God, these books are great.
Amanda, the protagonist (they weren’t the most creatively titled), has grown up gently in Boston, and her main accomplishments in life are to be handy with her fan and to be almost engaged to a guy named Joseph. Her mother had died a few years ago, leaving her with her father, who is a fairly nice guy but kind of terrible at being a dad. Amanda and Joseph have a very pleasant evening together, and are nearly engaged, and that night her dad swoops into her room and tells her to start packing her bags because they have to leave in like ten minutes. He doesn’t tell her where they’re going, or why, so she just tosses a couple of silk dresses into a bag and bitches to her dad about what’s going on. Well, turns out her dad is a total dirtbag, and owes a ton of money in gambling debts to a bunch of unsavoury people and they’re coming for him.
So they just start heading sort of randomly south, and then Amanda’s dad hears about Oregon, and their new plan is to head for Oregon. So they go to Independence to get a wagon and six oxen, and Amanda is pretty much despondent about this turn of events. But because as we’ve established that her dad, Thaddeus, is a dirtbag, he just tosses Amanda a bunch of tools and stuff and expects her to do all the cooking and laundry and chores along the way. On the one hand: I suppose that’s pretty normal division of labour for 1840. On the other hand: it’s dickish to expect your daughter, who’s never turned her hand to a useful thing in her life, to just pick up all these skills without even telling her beforehand. Amanda also takes this view, and generally behaves as you would expect from a spoiled teenager who didn’t want to go to Oregon in the first place.
One of the wagons in their train has a big family called the Jorgensens, and their daughter Helen is about Amanda’s age. Helen immediately takes a liking to Amanda and tries to be her friend, but Amanda is snobby (as established) and bitchy (yes) and just snots about how no matter what, she’ll never dress like Helen—i.e., in a comfortable cotton dress instead of a silk dancing dress with kid slippers. But Helen drags her kicking and screaming into learning how to cook, gives her food, and even brushes her hair for her. Helen is great. Amanda is the worst. Also on their train is a girl named Serena, who is engaged to a guy named Ben Compton, and whose main characteristic seems to be that she is serene. (Never let it be said that these books are not tremendously subtle.)
They head on their way through the “savage new land,” which is how it’s termed on the cover, and fight their way across dangerous rivers and muddy near-impassable trails and all that other business. Amanda is forced to give in and take one of Helen’s dresses because her silk gowns are very disgusting by this point. (Can you imagine how gross it would be to walk for weeks and weeks and weeks wearing a silk gown and not washing it? Walking through dust and dirt and mud and crossing rivers and stuff? I mean, on top of being incredibly physically daunting, the smell must have been just horrific.)
They travel through the prairies, getting horribly sunburned and dusty and passing by graves and stuff, and finally reach Courthouse Rock (in what is Nebraska today). (Side note: I looked at it just now, and I have to say that I don’t see the resemblance to a courthouse, or the Capitol, or anything else besides a large rectangle, but maybe I would be more inclined if I had just spent weeks walking across the wilderness. I don’t know.) Then Helen’s younger sister comes down with the measles, and then Amanda argues with her father, who’s claiming he has more work to do than anyone on the train, and reduces Amanda’s contribution to cooking and “keeping [the men] civilized.” Ah, so apparently all the work of hauling water, finding kindling and starting and maintaining fires, cooking three meals a day, washing all the dishes, doing all the laundry, and a million other miscellaneous chores is all negligible! So while rage-cooking, a spark flies onto Amanda’s dress, and burns her leg quite badly.
Another question: why are burns and cooking injuries not more common in historical fiction? I know there must have been millions and millions of injuries like that and worse, but how often does it pop up in books? Almost never! Anyway, Amanda gets a fever with the infection, and while she’s recovering a group of Indians attack the wagon train. One bursts into Amanda’s wagon, and she brandishes a spatula, which apparently makes him laugh and he leaves without taking any of her stuff. (Side note: he sounds hot. “She stared at him, aware that he was tall and lean, not ugly the way she had imagined. His face, under the whorls of red paint, was even-featured with a firm mouth and a strong Roman nose. His long hair was caught up with an upright golden feather. He wore a scrap of deerskin which covered him from the waist to the knees and fringed moccasins. His bare torso was daubed with more red paint. Around his neck hung a leather pouch and several strands of colored glass beads.” Nice.
This story travels around the wagon train, but Serena is more concerned that Ben came to visit Amanda in her tent while she was recovering from her burns. Ben does seem to run into Amanda quite a lot, and is always very friendly with her, which does seem kind of suspicious for a man who is technically engaged to another girl. And the following week, he teaches her to shoot! And then we learn he’s a Good Person because they pass by a wagon train of some Mormons, and he bitches about it not being a very free country if they can’t do as they please. (True, yes, but not a spectacularly common opinion. That’s why the Mormons were leaving, because everyone they came across kept getting irritated with them. If everyone was like Ben, they wouldn’t have had to go anywhere.)
Serena starts a little school for the youngest kids, which is her other personality trait (she loves teaching!), and when they reach Independence Rock Ben takes Amanda up to the rock instead of Serena. She’s too busy teaching kids, and so they go for a hike up the rock and have a close personal chat about their lives and how they came to be on the wagon train, etc. etc., and Amanda realizes she’s in love with Ben and has barely thought about Joseph in months.
Helen tells Amanda that everybody can see what’s going on (they may be tired but they’re not stupid), and then Serena comes over to Amanda and tells her that Ben asked her, Serena, to be his wife, and he may go off and flirt with other women but not to get stupid because he’ll always come back to her. Amanda tells her a straight-up lie—that she’s engaged to a Boston man who’s riding across the country on a Kentucky thoroughbred, and he’s coming to get her as soon as they reach Oregon, and take her back to Boston. I can’t believe Serena buys that pile of tripe. But the next day as they’re crossing the Divide, Ben kisses her!
Ben is a shit pump. Wow, he’s engaged to another woman and he’s macking on Amanda? Amanda is obviously devastated by this and feels horrible, which is more than can be said for Ben, and we have the hilarious lines “The two times in her life she had allowed herself to care for a boy, she had gotten hurt….She wondered if she would ever be happy.” Oh God, remember being sixteen and thinking that really and for truly you would never, ever, ever be happy? Immediately following this, Amanda’s father comes down with “mountain fever,” which is a conveniently vague description and could have been Rocky Mountain spotted fever, or typhus, or typhoid, or scarlet fever, or maybe something else, who really knows. So Amanda drives the team herself, or at least she does until one of them drops dead in the harness. When she tells her father about this and says that they have to drop some stuff to reduce weight, her father is like “Ugh, who cares, we’re all going to die anyway, take whatever, who cares.” He pitches out the blacksmithing tools, which is incredibly stupid, because he is incredibly stupid and also incredibly irritating as a sick person.
A bunch of other people on the train have noticed that Thaddeus is useless, and is letting his teenage daughter basically do all the work. It’s awkward for Amanda, on the principle of “I can say it but you can’t”—yeah, her dad is screwed up, but it’s okay for her to say it but it sucks to have other people trashing your dad, right? They opt to take the Sweetwater cutoff, which saves a week but has NO WATER, and break a wheel. You know what you could really use when it comes to fixing wheels? FUCKING BLACKSMITHING TOOLS, THADDEUS. I can think of at least one more tool here.
Then Ben gets trapped between a wagon and team and has several ribs broken, but avoids being crushed to death. After Mrs. Jorgensen binds him up, Amanda comes to keep him company, and they talk a little bit about what happens and he tells her that he really never loved Serena and he could never marry her. Listen, I know this is supposed to be super romantic and all, but literally all I can think of is a skeezebag going “No, baby, she’s nothing to me! I was forced into going out with her! But I don’t really care about her!”
And then it turns out that Helen has tuberculosis, as is heralded by the traditional Coughing Blood Spots Into A White Handkerchief. But Amanda is less concerned about that and more concerned about chatting with Ben all the time about whether or not he’s really engaged, but then he goes off to talk to Serena and she just accepts it all totally calmly. What??? Seriously???
By this time they’ve made it just about to the mountains, and they’re running out of food and frankly, energy slash patience. They are struggling up and down mountains every day, going up and down cliffs for water, facing down Shoshone tribes who don’t particularly care what’s going on with the train if they’re not going to get paid for the use of their land. (Fair.) And then one evening the men set off to hunt, and OMG AMANDA’S DAD IS KILLED OMG RED ALERT. Turns out it wasn’t due to him being a moron, or at least not much, but his horse stepped into a hole and threw him and he died instantly.
So now Amanda is alone (I actually was very pleased when her dad was killed, he was an idiot and just wrecked stuff constantly) and is driving her wagon alone full-time. Everyone else in the wagon train helps her out, since they quite like her now (since she’s proven herself to be a much nicer and all-around better person than her useless dad), and she spends time with Helen, who is sicker than ever. And Serena even apologizes to her and asks if they can be friends. But everyone else is miserable and suffering, too, and they’re all running out of food and slowly starving to death and eating acorns and greens and stuff.
Ben sets off ahead on horseback in search of some help, and while he’s gone things are the worst that they can be. They’re reduced to boiling up pine needles in an effort to make some kind of pathetic soup, and then just when things seem the darkest, Ben comes riding up. And it turns out they’re just a few miles away from Oregon City! They’re almost there! And Ben stopped at the first farm he saw and they’re all coming with food and supplies to help! And Ben asks her to pick out a place for their farm, because they’re going to be married and can live happily ever after.
Rating: B. These function on an entirely different level in terms of ratings. I mean, I’m going into this knowing that none of these are truly good books or good literature or in many cases worth more than the paper they’re printed on. But some of them are better than others, and this is one of the better ones! Mostly because it’s less about a love triangle of the girl choosing between two men (there is no real love triangle—Joseph is basically a cipher and disappears after Chapter 2), and the main conflict is much more about Amanda learning to be decently capable and also not a snobby mess. There is a love triangle in the form of Ben stringing along Serena while going after Amanda, and while I’m not terribly keen on that plot, I can recognize that it was the 80s and it was a Different Time. I would be exceedingly irritated if a book published in 2016 had the same plot.
The bigger story here is that Amanda becomes a better person over the course of this book. And that is great, and that’s something that I love seeing in books targeted at young women. Yes, there’s all the love story involved, but Amanda is also learning about herself and about chores and about how her father is really kind of crap. I think it could definitely have been handled with a bit more depth, but ultimately, it’s great. This is one of the best Sunfire books out there, and I am DYING to see how the rest of them end up stacking up!