Sunday, February 07, 2010

Pioneer Story Needs Either Less Fiction, More Facts or More Facts Less Fiction

I've been reading so much dark, post-apocalyptic literature that I decided to find something a little more cheery to read. Naturally, I chose a book about the Willie Handcart Company, because what could be more cheery than that? Ha ha. Maybe you have to be Mormon to understand the irony of this statement. Maybe you have to be Mormon to understand what I'm talking about.

If you know anything about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, it's probably our pioneering heritage. Due to religious persecution, members of the church were forced to leave their homes and head for the territory that would become Utah. They called it "Zion," because it was the one place on Earth where they could practice their religon freely. Beginning in 1847, the Saints traveled across the plains of Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming to reach the valley that would be their home. The first groups - which were organized into military-style "companies" - blazed the trail, making notes about the land, the weather, and the various dangers along the way. Thousands of Saints from the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia streamed across the plains over the next 43 years or so. From their journals, we know about the many hardships they endured - from sunburn to chapped lips to Indian raids to snakebites to starvation. We also know of their extreme faith in God, a devotion that kept them plodding along mile after mile after mile.

Thousands of Europeans migrated to the U.S. with the express purpose of joining their church family in Zion. Because many of them were destitute, too poor to purchase and outfit wagons, the church gave them handcarts. Resembling large wheelbarrows, the handcarts could carry as much as 500 lbs. of supplies. About 5 people were assigned to each handcart - it was their responsibility to push or pull it across the prairie. Only the very young, the elderly or the infirm were allowed to ride. Everyone else walked the (approx.) 1300 miles to Utah.

Although only about 10% of the pioneers crossed the plains using handcarts, their extreme suffering and unwavering faith of those who did have turned them into legends. Those who traveled in the Willie and Martin companies, in particular, are celebrated today as paragons of pioneer fortitude. Through a series of unfortunate events, the groups started out late in the season of 1856, beginning their treks on August 17 and August 27, respectively. Icy temperatures, snowstorms, torrential rain and too little stocked food, combined with the usual perils of trail life to make it a desperate, difficult, heartbrekingly perilous journey. In the 3 months it took the companies to reach Utah, around 213 of their approx. 1076 pioneers died.

Who was to blame for the tragedy? Brigham Young? Other church leaders? Captains Willie and Martin? God? In the aftermath of the tragedy, many came under fire. Yet, the most famous story to come out of this blame game is this one: During a church meeting in Utah, years after the handcart pioneers crossed the plains, a Sunday School teacher was discussing the event. Criticism of both the church and Brigham Young was flying fast and furious. An old man, who had been sitting quietly in the corner, rose to his feet and demanded that the criticism stop. His name was Francis Webster, and he said, in part:

I ask you to stop this criticism. You are discussing a matter you know nothing about. Cold historic facts mean nothing here ... I was in that company and my wife was in it ... We suffered beyond anything you can imagine and many died of exposure and starvation, but did you ever hear a survivor utter a word of criticism? Every on eof us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives for we became acquainted with Him in our extremities!

I have pulled my handcart when I was so weak and weary from illness and lack of food that I could hardly put one foot ahead of the other. I have looked ahead and seen a patch of sand or a hill slope and have said, I can go only that far and there I must give up for I cannot pull the load through it. I have gone to that sand and when I reahced it, the cart began pushing me! I have looked back many times to see who was pushing my cart, but my eyes saw no one. I knew then that the Angels of God were there.

Was I sorry that I chose to come by handcart? No! Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin Handcart Company. (I've heard this story repeated many, many times. Here, I quote directly from Afterword, In the Company of Angels, pages 387-88)

It's this kind of faith and testimony that make the handcart pioneers such an exemplary and powerful part of our pioneer heritage.


(The painting is "Trail of Sacrifice-Valley of Hope" by the very talented Clark Kelley Price - it's from http://www.lds.org/; Historical details are from the pioneer section on the Church's website and Wikipedia.)

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Still with me?

Okay, now that you know a little of the history, we can talk about David Farland's new book, In the Company of Angels. Farland, a devout member of the LDS Church, has written numerous sci-fi/fantasy books. He decided to tell the story of the Willie Handcart Company because it moved him so much.

As stated above, the company of around 400 Saints, under the direction of English immigrant James G. Willie, crossed the plains from August to November 1856. Farland tells the story from the perspectives of three people, all of whom were real pioneers: Eliza Gadd, Baline Mortensen and Captain Willie. In addition to relating the struggles of the company as a whole, the accounts relate the personal and spiritual experiences of each.

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Since I've already described what happened on the journey, I'm not going to go into the plot -it's basically the story of 400 people and what they encounter on the 1300 mile trek to Utah. There aren't any real subplots. The book simply follows the history, using diaries and letters to make the account historically accurate. Because of this, In the Company of Angels reads more like non-fiction than fiction. In fact, I think I would have enjoyed it much more if it hadn't been fictionalized at all. The experiences of those in the Willie Company, after all, need no dramatizing. They were exciting, harrowing, tragic and inspiring all on their own.

For me, Farland's historical fiction has too much history and too little fiction. Without any real subplots involving our narrators' personal lives, it's difficult to really get to know them. They're good "characters" - interesting to a point - but they never really come alive enough to be truly memorable. Baline and Captain Willie are, without a doubt, sympathetic and likable, but Eliza comes off as a snobby whiner. Her passages are so grating that I often wanted to skip them altogether. I think the real problem is that Farland's trying to cover too much territory. In attempting to tell the tale of the entire company, he doesn't expend enough energy on the individual, sacrificing that personal connection a reader needs to feel to really care about a character. My other beefs with the book include poor editing, so-so writing, and lack of focus.

Even though I didn't like Eliza Gadd as a character, I like the idea of using her as one of the narrators. As the only non-Mormon in the company (her husband was a devout member of the church, but she did not believe), her perspective is unique. She's openly critical of the church and its leaders, which lets Farland explore the frustration, doubt and fear that many pioneers had to have felt as they buried friends and family in shallow graves, as their limbs turned black from frostbite and as they boiled leather to keep starvation at bay. Farland doesn't shy away from or sentimentalize the pioneers' struggle - he lets the reader see the journey for what it was, mistakes, miracles, murmuring and all. It's obvious that he's done hours of research (even traveling along the Mormon Trail and pulling a handcart) on the pioneers and that he has a deep respect for them. I just think his book would have been much more effective if he'd eschewed the fiction and stuck with the facts. After all, never has the adage "Truth is stranger than fiction" been more apt than in the case of the Mormon pioneers. And that's a fact.

Just for the record, the book wasn't cheery in the least. Guess I'll go back to reading about the end of the world ...

(Readalikes: The Work and the Glory series by Gerald Lund)

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: While the struggles of the pioneers can be "rated" no less than an R, this book is not overly graphic. I'm going to say PG for mild language, scenes of peril/death, and violence.

To the FTC, with love: I bought In the Company of Angels from Deseret Book.

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