When I was younger, some of my favorite stories were about the Oregon Trail and the pioneers who left everything behind to head west. I had not read much about the Mormon pilgrims seeking their Zion in Utah, who made the trip west on foot and pulling handcarts. Sandra Dallas writes of the disastrous Martin Company expedition that headed out from Iowa in 1856. During the actual historical event, over 135 people died, more than the more infamous Donner Party
Dallas’s novel, True Sisters, follows the friendship of four women on the trail, immigrants from England who heeded Brigham Young’s call. Ella and Nannie are sisters, Ella expecting her first child with her husband Andrew, who has promised never to take another wife, and Nannie having been spurned at the altar once but hoping to make a new life for herself in Zion. Anne is not herself a Mormon but is married to a convert who sold their worldly belongings to make the journey, leaving her with no choice but to follow regardless of the sacrifices the trip demands. And finally, there is Jessie, a young woman traveling with her two brothers westward to create a new life farming land less exhausted than what they left behind in England.
While a relatively fast read, it is not a light one. The novel is intended to depict the friendship and bonds forged through hardship by these women, but an extensive portion of the novel is dedicated to the tragedies that befall the party along the way. Children die, spouses go to sleep one night and never wake up, people drown during dangerous river crossings, and injuries get infected. Partway through, part of the nightly preparations are given over to digging a large grave to accommodate any further deaths that occur before the party moves on the next morning. The constant tragedy almost creates a numbing effect, both for the characters themselves, who are starving and weary, and the reader.
I am of mixed feelings about the author’s treatment of religion here. The main female characters themselves display a range of devoutness and belief and resignation, but the depiction of the male characters is a bit more loaded. It is made abundantly clear over and over that men make their choices, whether in money or plural marriage, and most of the women have no choice or otherwise few options but to go along with it. Historically, it is probably fitting, but in this contemporary treatment, readers are reminded again and again about the unfairness and hypocrisy of it all.
True Sisters also straddles an interesting line in terms of target audience. The emphasis on female friendship is very much women’s literature, but the religious content may be a turn-off for many. There is a lot of praising God and platitudes about how being chosen didn’t mean it would be easy, but a skimming of reviews shows that Mormon readers found the depiction of their faith and fixation on polygamy problematic. On the other hand, readers critical of organized religion may find the hypocrisy and tragedy to prove their beliefs about corruption and manipulation of religious leadership but may be hard-pressed to get through the aforementioned platitudes.
If nothing else, this was an interesting glimpse into a period of history I didn’t know much about. Other, more Mormon-friendly fictional treatment of this history can be found in Gerald Lund’s Fire of the Covenant. David Roberts’ Devil’s Gate: Brigham Young and the Great Mormon Handcart Tragedy is a nonfiction look at the tragedy.