Back in 2010, my husband and I drove home to Colorado after taking our oldest daughter up to Washington state for her freshman year in college, and we indulged ourselves during the two-day drive by stopping at many of the Oregon Trail landmarks that dotted the highway along our route. This prompted me to research some novels that take place along the Oregon Trail during its heyday, and the one that got the most recommendations was A Sudden Country, by Karen Fisher.
I finally got around to reading it in March and was both blown away by it and irritated by it.
It is extremely well-written. Fisher is adept at crafting poetic, dreamy descriptions of the land and the feelings it evokes as well as using language and narrative technique to tell a troubling story of troubling characters.
Here's a quick summary of the plot. Lucy Mitchell and her family journey to Oregon in 1847. Her first husband died a few years earlier and she remarried a widower, Israel, with a daughter--Lucy has two daughters from her first marriage, and two with Israel, one of which is a baby. Lucy didn't want to leave her house in Missouri but was given no choice. Israel decided that the family had to move and that was that.
Enter James Maclaren. A trapper and trader who was married to an Indian woman who abandoned him and their children, who subsequently died of smallpox. Maclaren is an honorable man who is trying to understand how his life fell apart so fast.
When the Mitchell's wagon driver quits early in the journey, Maclaren signs on to work for them. Lucy finds in Maclaren traces of the feelings she once had for her first husband and in relatively no time she has an affair with him.
It's a good thing the writing is so good because the plot was melodramatic, sordid, and depressing. I found myself really disliking Lucy for much of the book--as a character I found her selfish and arrogant. She complains that Israel is not the man her first husband was or that Maclaren is, but she married him for the simple reason that she wanted and needed a male protector and provider but then wasn't willing to uphold her end of the bargain (i.e., fidelity). I also couldn't stomach how willing she was to abandon her own children, the teen girls as well as her toddler son and baby daughter, for a roll in the hay with Maclaren.
I found Maclaren more likeable as a character--he really did have a rough time of it. He truly loved Lise, his faithless wife, and was a kind and faithful father to his children, nursing them and then burying them and mourning them. However, I found it had to stomach his seduction of Lucy after his own wife had been seduced away from him.
From a thematic standpoint, I got how the journey from Missouri to Oregon enabled Lucy and Maclaren to "find themselves," and ultimately Lucy ended up reconciling herself to her fate as Israel's wife. She emerged at the end of the journey as a stronger person who was no longer had to search for lost love but was able to find meaning and satisfaction in the life she had.
A Sudden Country was inspired by a journal kept by the author's ancestor, Emma Ruth Ross, who was one of Lucy's older daughters. The letter itself is fascinating and Fisher incorporated the content of the journal into the novel. Rest assured, Emma doesn't mention Maclaren at all, and Fisher acknowledges that she invented his role in the family's journey west.
I did earmark a number of pages, a sure sign that I liked the writing. I just wish I liked the story more!
One more note, A Sudden Country reminded me on more than one occasion of Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain. Both alternate between telling the female protagonist's story and the male protagonist's story, and the characters of Ada and Lucy and Inman and Maclaren are somewhat similar in their moral ambiguity and rootlessness. Both stories also often include their characters's dreams, and the prose itself has a hallucinatory, dreamlike quality.
I do like Western fiction, and I did enjoy reading about their journey along the Oregon Trail, checking the map at the front of the book frequently and remembering details from Lewis and Clark's journey as recounted in Undaunted Courage.
A Sudden Country is definitely worth reading. I'm not one who has to love or identify with the main characters in order to like a book, so don't take my grousing about Lucy as a slight to the book. It was thought-provoking, and that is definitely a good thing.
Ultimately, the novel is about telling our stories to each other. Emma Ruth's sparse journal of her journey west as a child was the creative impulse that Karen Fisher used to explore her view of our collective Western journey. As she writes near the end of the book:
For every life we know, we are expanded.
There is no forgiveness without stories. There is no dignity. There is no way to speak in other tongues but that.