Jane Kirkpatrick remains one of my favorite historical fiction authors. Her books revolve around real life strong women who defied society's norms and so much more to make a place in America's expanding frontiers. Many of her books center on the women of the Northwest, and THE ROAD WE TRAVELED, her latest work, features yet another mostly unknown heroine. As Kirkpatrick reveals in her author notes, Tabitha Brown is not totally unrecognized in Oregon, having earned the title "Mother of Oregon" from the Oregon legislature in 1987. However, that honor did not make her a household name, even in Oregon, and few know much about her trip from Missouri to Oregon, a trip which had her wagon and several others deciding to take a cutoff (Applegate cutoff) that almost cost their lives.
From the first page I connected with Tabitha. At age 66 and being a widow and somewhat handicapped from a childhood injury, Tabitha was viewed by her adult family as too old and feeble to make the difficult wagon trip west. Tabitha knew she did not want to be a burden, but she did not want to remain in Missouri, even when one son's family decided not to go west. Tabby's pioneer spirit, fueled by memories of her life with her minister husband and the years she struggled as a widow with three children, prevailed and she bought her own wagon, found a driver, and consented to take her brother-in-law (much older than she was) along. Being just about Tabitha's age, I certainly can't imagine traveling by covered wagon across the country, leaving all my possessions behind, but I also would bristle if my family deemed me too old or too feeble to do anything.
I've read many books and watched numerous movies portraying wagon trains, but I have to place this one among the best. Readers will grieve with Tabitha's daughter Pherne who reluctantly leaves behind a tiny grave, bolstered by her husband's declaration that their tiny son lives on in their hearts. And I found Tabby's granddaughter Virgilia's excitement over the promise of an unknown future represents the feelings of so many children who had no say in where they traveled, yet met every day with wonder.
Like she has done in her other books, Kirkpatrick did extensive research which is incorporated into the story, then the characters are "fleshed out" with words, thoughts, and experiences that fit the historical framework. That the Applegate cutoff which Tabitha, her son-in-law, and others decide to take is a total disaster is fact; that they almost starved is fact. Kirkpatrick paints the day by day pictures of broken wagons, dying oxen, and constant stops to bury yet another member of the group in such a way that you too will feel their despair. It is also fact that during the same months that the Browns and others travel across this cutoff, another group (some of them former members of their group) attempt to make it across the mountains to California. By simply mentioning the name given to that group, the Donner party, we all know their fate. Kirkpatrick's book does not end with the group's rescue and arrival in Oregon; besides being a story of a journey, this is also a book about family and relationships. The author continues the story with details of how Tabitha finds a purpose in the new land, reconciles with a troublesome son, and also how Pherne and Virgilia find their places.
Each time I read another Kirkpatrick book, I think it is my favorite, and I think perhaps she has run out of strong women to write about. Fortunately for all readers, I have always been wrong, and within months she returns with a new book and we are introduced to another piece to our country's heritage. I received a copy of this book from Revell Reads.