Volume XVI, Issue Three | September 2019
Westering Women Westering Women won’t be published until January, but I want to tell you about it now. I’m really excited about this book, because I thought about it for years but was never able to come up with a plot.
When I was a girl, I loved the Robert Taylor movie “Westward the Women,” about a man leading a group of brides to Oregon. I liked it because, despite the sappy love story (Taylor slaps the hysterical woman in one of those thanks-I-needed-that situations), the women were competent, not like the usual batch of filmdom’s western heroines. They were either temptresses or mindless stand-by-your-man types, who screamed and were paralyzed when faced with danger and had to be rescued. I wanted to write about the women whose diaries and narratives I read that show they were much different from the Hollywood clichés.
I couldn’t come up with a plot, however. My first attempt at Westering Women was a disaster. I had a cast of thousands, with no single character standing out. I whittled down the number of women in the second draft, but that was too broad, as well. My agent suggested I select one woman and write the story from her viewpoint. Her choice was Maggie, a dressmaker, a character I hadn’t considered very important. I would have preferred another woman, but as I began to flesh out Maggie’s story, I came to love her. She is generous and brave and a wonderful observer, but she is also realistic and has a tragic story of her own.
Here’s the story as my publisher, St. Martin’s Press, describes it:
It’s February, 1852, and all around Chicago, Maggie sees the postings soliciting “eligible women” to travel to the gold mines of Goosetown. A young seamstress with a small daughter and several painful secrets, she has nothing to lose.
So she joins forty-three other women and two pious reverends on the dangerous 2000 mile journey west. None of them are prepared for the hardships they face on the trek through the high plains, mountains, and deserts. Or for the triumphs of finding strengths they did not know they possessed. And not all will make it.
As Maggie gets to know the other women, she soon discovers that she’s not the only one looking to leave dark secrets behind. And when her past catches up with her, it becomes clear a band of sisters will do whatever it takes to protect one of their own.
This book took a long time to write, and more than once, I wondered if I should pitch it and go on to something else. But I loved the characters, several of whom reminded me of Mattie in The Diary of Mattie Spenser. Besides Maggie, they include the indomitable Mary Madrid, the gentile Caroline Swain, and the illiterate and desperate young woman with the improbable name of Pennsylvania House, perhaps my favorite character of all. So like my women I persevered, although my task of sitting at a computer was a bit less daunting than walking the 2,000-mile Overland Trail.
Nice News from Women Writing the West
I’m thrilled that Hardscrabble, my third children’s book, is the winner of the Women Writing the West’s2019 Willa Literary Award in Children's Fiction and Nonfiction. The Patchwork Bride is a finalist for historical fiction. Awards will be presented at WWW’s annual conference in San Antonio in October. My daughter Dana is going with me.
Upcoming Book Signing: