Living in the 1850s, whether in a city such as Boston, in a small community, or on a farm wasn’t a very pleasant proposition by today’s standards. Even worse was traveling in a covered wagon across the prairie with your worldly possessions, unsure of what you’d encounter or if you were prepared to endure the trip. Kennedy ably depicts the horrors of a wagon train existence in this grueling novel.
Newlywed Boston-bred Lucy Parker Schneider is proud of her stalwart husband Jacob, whose only discernible flaw seems to be his refusal to stand up to his Bible-thumping despot of a brother Abner with whom Jacob owns a farm. When wagon train leader Clint Palance convinces their neighbors to join his group at Independence, Missouri, Jacob assures Lucy that he isn’t foolish enough to join those on the way to the gold fields.
Shortly thereafter, however, despite Lucy’s objections, Abner’s wish to leave the farm prevails, and Lucy finds herself packed up with his wife Martha and son Noah, ready to begin the trek West. Disillusioned at her weak-willed husband and a little fearful of her brother-in-law who likes to spew Biblical quotes, Lucy resigns herself to crossing the plains and mountains to reach California under the leadership of Clint and his partner Charlie.
The trip almost immediately turns into a nightmare as one after another of the travelers dies, including their neighbors and Jacob. The only bright spot for Lucy is Clint, who has picked her out as someone special and time after time saves her from accidents. Shaken and bereaved, Lucy finds herself under the protection of Abner, who becomes puffed up with self-importance when the rest of the men elect him captain of the expedition after his brother’s death.
Abner, unfortunately, decides the group’s original timetable must be followed and refuses to listen to the more experienced leaders. When Clint and Charlie decide to stop and regroup for a day, Abner refuses and with Lucy, Martha, and Noah sets off alone. This is a tragic mistake as Martha, then Noah die.
Disgusted with her brother-in-law, Lucy is thankful Clint rescues them and brings them back to the group. But Abner has decided what once belonged to his brother now belong to him, including his money, his wagon, his cattle, and his wife.
Brought up to obey the men in the family, Lucy grudgingly goes along with fixing meals for the unpleasant Abner but refuses to sleep with him. She dreams of freedom in the West without him, but he becomes more unpredictable and meaner, making an already hellish journey even more so.
While Kennedy’s novel might seem unduly harsh, she leavens it with the good times as well as the bad, through the secondary characters who are traveling West not only for gold but also with dreams of better farm land and business opportunities. This is a slice of life that will make readers sigh with relief after the last page is read.