Raveled Ends of Sky
J. B. Chiles did lead a band of settlers on a covered wagon trek across the western U.S., through the Sierra Nevadas and into California in 1843, and in the company were two unmarried women. That much seems to be fact. Sandifer takes what is known and spins off from this the tale of Nancy Maguire, a 26-year-old spinster from Amherst (Massachusetts), and widowed Lottie England — two women as blessed with the adventuring pioneer spirit as many of the men, and more than some.
Life in a covered wagon was hard, dangerous work, with the natural elements as often as not working against them. There were wild animals, wild Indians, and the wilderness itself, and through most of the first half of the book Sandifer provides a seemingly never-ending abundance of authentic, picturesque details of everyday living.
There is even time for romance, as well. The trek west is slow but sure, and as a result, it comes as quite a letdown when the trip through the mountains occurs as if a minor inconvenience, hardly worth mentioning. Suddenly, on p. 181, they’re there.
And once in California the focus shifts, as the newcomers are quickly immersed in the political squabbling over California. The land belongs to Mexico, but with the influx of American settlers, tensions are beginning to rise. Lots of famous names — Sutter, Frémont, Thomas Larkin, Ezekiel Merritt and José Castro — are part of the story, and they take the spotlight away from Nancy, her new husband, and the dreams they share of starting a horse ranch in this new land — a dream she’s had since beginning the arduous trip west.
And that’s the story I’d rather have read. Sandifer tells us about the events in the historical record, but we’re no longer really part of it. In the end, there may be too much to tell. Nancy and Lottie certainly lived in interesting times, but most of the ensuing raids, battles and other insurrections take place too far off stage. Only when it gets personal does their story keep the reader’s full attention.