The year is 1856, and it is already July when a determined group of Mormon Saints begins a journey from Iowa to Utah on foot, all their worldly goods reduced to a small handcart. These hardy souls are seeking Zion, and though some have misgivings about the late start, they march onward, pulling their own carts, cooking, worshipping, giving birth, and losing loved ones as they go. It is through this journey that the bonds of friendship are forged among the women as they share everything as winter storms approach and promised supplies never arrive. They become True Sisters indeed.
Dallas based her novel on the true story of the last Handcart Journey of 1856, and while her characters are fictional, their hardships, deprivations, and ultimate plights ring true. The women either dig deeper into their faith to find the courage to keep going, or they lose hope and suffer defeat and even death. Dallas does not shy away from the images of illness and the effects of killing cold, and the characters face incredible odds as well as misguided leaders whose decisions rob them of possessions and family. It is hard enough to read about women giving birth on the march, but to know that the child has almost no chance of survival was almost too much to bear. But bear it they did, with the help of the ones who best understood: the other women.
I found this book fascinating as I followed these religious pilgrims across an unforgiving landscape, though I often was frustrated with their circumstances. Many of the men do not come across as sympathetic, but it’s really the women such as Nannie, Anne, and Jessie showing such fortitude that make this well worth the read. It is not an easy story, but it is ultimately a study in human endurance. Recommended.