Interesting twist: I hated this book as a kid, and enjoyed it way, way more as an adult. Who knew?
West To A Land of Plenty: The Diary of Teresa Angelino Viscardi, New York to Idaho Territory, 1883, Jim Murphy, 1998.
A few things I was mistaken about: this is one of the earliest DA books published (number eight out of thirty-six!), and it’s set a bit earlier than I thought (1883), and it’s one of the very few written by a man. Jim Murphy also wrote Land of the Buffalo Bones, which I hated, and Barry Denenberg wrote five (for which my tally was one good, one mediocre, three awful). While it’s well-written, it drags in places and has some uneven pacing. The characterization is great and makes up for some of the shortfalls—but one of the biggest shortfalls is that this is intended to be about utopian, planned communities in the Western US, but that barely comes up at all. Which is such a shame! I would have loved it if that aspect had been a bigger, more important part of the story, but instead it comes across as more of a basic crossing-the-country story, which is already amply covered.
As a kid, the only thing I liked about this book was that it was pretty. (It’s ivory! Pretty!) Other than that, I hated Teresa, the protagonist, and her irritating little sister Netta. I thought they were both annoying and deserved to be unhappy. As an adult, I found it surprisingly enjoyable. Rather than annoying, I found it enjoyable and entertaining and realistic. I don’t know what it says about me that when I was actually among the target audience I hated it but now that I’ve aged out of it I like it better. Or what it says about the book. Who knows.
Teresa, at fourteen, is en route from her home in New York to a planned community in Idaho with her parents, her three younger siblings, her grandmother, and a number of aunts and uncles and cousins. “I hate this train and its tiny wooden seats and the cacarocielu crawling everywhere! And the rain. I HATE IT!!” So you know it’s shaping up to be great so far. She’s extremely upset at having to leave her home and her friends in New York, and the fact that the train is slow and miserable and dirty has not made things one bit better for her. I don’t know why I didn’t like this growing up—this is 100% accurate how most kids feel when being forced to move. The structure of this diary is a bit different, because Teresa shares it with her twelve-year-old sister Netta, who writes in it almost as much as Teresa does. It’s a really interesting shift—Teresa tends to write more about their days and who is doing what, and Netta writes a bit more about her feelings and thoughts and plans for the future. It’s subtle, but nicely done.
But mostly what Teresa does with Netta is argue. They argue, Teresa argues with her grandmother (an old-fashioned and traditional Sicilian grandmother type), Teresa gripes about her parents and cousins, and it’s all really entertainingly realistic. The train is frustratingly slow, and everyone is on edge until Mr. Anderson, one of the expedition leaders, gets on the train as well and begins to calm everyone’s nerves. Teresa is rather more interested in J.W., Mr. Anderson’s handsome son, who is just about her age. The rest of the train trip is pretty agonizing, though—people get sick, the food is terrible, they keep stopping and having to wait for ages, everyone is arguing with everyone else, and it’s generally awful.
They arrive at the jumping-off point in the Dakotas by the end of April, and meet up with Mr. Keil, who is going to lead the wagon train to Idaho. They set themselves up with wagons and livestock and prepare to go, and Teresa is awkward around J.W. and Netta makes a few friends, and they finally leave in the second week of May. From here on out, it’s remarkably similar to Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie, except with Italian people and a great deal more illness. Everyone trades off illness and injury, and when Teresa’s mother is sick, her father asks Teresa to help drive the wagon with him. She writes “I was thinking about our street and my friends and my school and how everything in my life had been turned upside down and somehow I managed to ask, ‘What about me?’….’What about me? It’s always Momma this or Ernesto that, or Nanna or Netta or Uncle Eugenio this and that….everyone but me.’ I wanted to go on and on and tell him how angry I felt inside, but I didn’t….’You!’ Poppa said in a voice that wasn’t scolding but did say I was being silly. ‘We are doing this for you, and for Ernesto and Netta too. It is a way to make your lives better…and that of your children too. And their children. So it is not always so hard.”
I love this. It’s great, and not over-preachy or too textbook-y, and it’s nicely couched within self-doubt and fear and wow. A lot going on there. I really like it.
Unfortunately, the next third or so of the book really really drags. A lot. I do enjoy Daily Life-type stories, and I like the changing format, but this just doesn’t do it for me for some reason. They cross prairies, meet Indians, ford rivers, come across tiny little hamlets, write letters, Netta walks with her friends, Teresa hangs around with J.W. and makes friends with another girl a bit older than she is, and so on. Two girls are drowned in one river crossing, which terrifies both Teresa and Netta and takes the shine off the proceedings for a while.
In the middle of June when the wagon train is almost through the Dakotas, they receive news of a major silver strike in the Black Hills. Men are incredibly excited, and Mr. Keil keeps trying to keep people from fleeing by reminding them why they came all that way in the first place, but it just isn’t enough. Some of the men start to turn their backs on the train and go to dig for silver—as does Teresa’s Uncle Eugenio, and he tries to convince Teresa’s father to come with him. Teresa’s mother is livid at this (since Eugenio was the one who convinced them to go to Idaho in the first place), but since she isn’t the head of the family, she can’t make decisions for them. Mr. Keil convinces the men who absolutely have to go dig for silver to leave their families behind with the wagon train, where they’ll be safer, and this just exactly suits Teresa’s father and uncle. They and twenty-five other men set off, leaving their families to drive the wagons themselves.
It doesn’t go well. People are injured and sick, it’s slow going, and the train begins to get separated from itself. And then at the end of the month, Teresa’s family is left behind as well when her Aunt Marta and cousin Rosario are too ill to continue. Then Teresa’s younger brother Ernesto gets sick as well, and her mother decides they can’t do it by themselves anymore, and decides to send Teresa and her grandmother to the silver mines to bring back the men. They take a mule and set out—just the two of them and a few things they’ll need, and travel for days.
They’re set upon by a pair of men who want to take their mules and supplies, and Teresa shoots at them with the rifle. She doesn’t hit either of them or anything else, but it frightens them enough that they call her crazy and flee. The scene goes on for pages and it’s too long to quote, but it’s terrifically done—one of the most challenging things in the writing of this book, I’m guessing, is that Teresa isn’t a terribly strong writer herself (another one of the differences between her voice and Netta’s voice), but the entire scene is related with charm and precision even though it’s obvious the voice is someone who isn’t the strongest writer herself. It’s exciting and nerve-wracking and thrilling all at once. “I…told Nanna I was sorry for pointing the rifle at her and scaring her, but that I didn’t know what else to do, and that I didn’t mean to yell at her either. I thought she was going to scold me again, but instead she said ‘You were like 1 of Garibaldi’s warriors, Teresa! You gave those 2 bandits what they deserved.’ That’s when she gave me a powerful hug and I stated to laugh and cry at the same time….”
When they make it to Rapid City, another would-be miner tells them the strike was a bust after all, and Teresa’s father and Eugenio are very upset to hear of all the illness and injury on the train. They set to return at once, and with the two men along there’s a fair amount of disagreement and argument on the way back since they all feel they know what the best solution is. After days of travel to get back to the camp, they learn the horrible truth—Netta died just two days after Teresa and her grandmother left. It’s horrible, it’s terribly wrenching, and then what’s even worse is that there’s two pages of Netta’s diary entries she wrote before dying, which makes Teresa want to die herself.
They rebury Netta in a deeper grave, and after a few days once everyone is recovered enough to travel, they try to return to the wagon train. The night before, Teresa goes to Netta’s grave to talk to her. “If Netta could have, I bet she would have said I was crazy to be talking to a dead person, but I don’t care. It felt good to say these things out loud. Then I told her what Poppa had said about the hurt going away and what I planned to do—that from now on I will call my diary Netta. In this way, I can talk with Netta my diary directly, and maybe I will not miss Netta my best friend and sister so much.”
They do meet up with the wagon train, and they make it to Opportunity in the end, and they are just as successful there as Mr. Keil had promised to them in New York.
Rating: B. I loved this. I don’t know why I hated it as a kid, but as an adult, it’s great. I love that it’s a story about siblings where they really openly squabble and fight, since lots of the DA/DC novels are about siblings who aren’t all that close or get along fine anyway. But this is so great. My qualm, again, is that it’s not really a novel about planned utopian communities—that’s really only the setup for the westward travel. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but I find it strange that that was the focus of the novel so shortly after Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairies came out. Apart from that, though, I enjoyed the colloquial style of writing and the split styles, and I really enjoyed that Teresa is set out to be a bit of a weaker writer. (It’s just nice to have a break from the DA novels that are “I love reading and writing!” even though those are great as well.) It works, and it works well, and there has to be a lot of really strong writing capability behind it. I would have given this an A if it wasn’t for the lack of material about the actual communities themselves! Other than that—I really, really enjoyed it.