Sunday 23 February 2020

Neo-Victorian Voices: Westering Women, Sandra Dallas (2020)

In the last three posts in my Neo-Victorian Voices series, on novels set in the nineteenth century, but written in the twenty-first, we’ve returned to Jane Austen’s English countryside, entered the cellar of a depraved London taxidermist, and revisited Charles Dickens’s ever-popular A Christmas Carol.

This week, we’re in 1850s America, as, in Westering Women (2020), Sandra Dallas imagines the journey of forty women “of high moral character”, who set out on a journey from Chicago to California in search of a better life. All are ostensibly risking the perilous Overland Trail to find husbands among the gold seekers, but many are running away from the past—abusive men, prostitution, even possible murder convictions.

Westering Women (2020)
The main character Maggie is a mother, who’s been battered by her husband and needs to get as far from Chicago as she can. She is also a dressmaker and I enjoyed how her sewing skills contributed to the story and how her eye for clothing and materials gave us a specific lens on the cities and settlements the women pass through.

Dallas’s research shines through in her depiction of the trail, the physical toll it takes on the women and the changing landscapes and climates they travel through. With a large cast and epic journey to cover, she does a great job in showing the transformative effect of this adventure on the women, in terms of their sense of self worth, the physical objects they value and their relationships with each other. This is a novel about womanhood, sisterhood, motherhood and friendship, where men act at worst as the agents of evil and at best as slightly weak supporting characters.

Sandra Dallas (1939- )
Dallas kept me guessing about who would make it to the journey’s end (spoiler alert: it’s not all of them) and ratcheted up the tension, as the weather, Native American warriors, pursuing forces from back home and men in the wagon train’s midst threaten the group’s safety.

I’d recommend the novel to anyone interested in learning about this period of American history and the mass migration of many (including women and families) under such trying circumstances. The book is focused on the journey itself rather than on California and those panning for gold there, which makes the ending feel a little rushed, but it’s nice to be given space to imagine the surviving women’s lives there.

The novel also walks an interesting line, in being at times heart-warming with a strong sense of inclusive and forgiving Christian morality, while at others dealing with brutal sexual and physical violence. The treatment of, and attitudes towards, black and Native American characters is in line with historical realities, which can also make for emotionally difficult reading. This isn’t escapist historical fiction that will leave you longing for a romantic past. I for one will feel pretty grateful the next time I hop on a quick six-hour flight to California!

Do you have any recommendations for novels I should read next in my Neo-Victorian Voices series? If so, let me know—here, on Facebook, via Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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