Debbie Glade reviews Women of the Frontier: 16 Tales of Trailblazing Homesteaders, Entrepreneurs, and Rabble-Rousers (19.95, Chicago Review Press, Ages 12 and up) by Brandon Marie Miller, a meaty hardcover book that recalls the lives of powerful and fascinating pioneer women of the American Wild West.
The author does an excellent job introducing readers to what life was like for pioneers from the 1840s and beyond – the challenges of traveling via covered wagon, gathering food and cooking in rough conditions, horrific weather, illnesses, giving birth on the trail and more. Then she takes readers on a journey that makes them feel as though they are pioneers themselves with stories of 16 women who persevered with unfaltering determination during trying times of the 19th century. Some of the stories are wonderfully complemented by black and white historic photos.
Among the heroic stories in the book, I was astonished by Margaret Reed, a young widow who set out on a trail in May, 1846, with a group of 81 people known as the Donner Party. They began their journey in Springfield, Illinois and traveled through Utah and Nevada with the goal of reaching California. But the group encountered severe weather conditions, lack of food, illness, and 36 people perished in the snow. The survival story of Margaret Reed, against all odds, is truly phenomenal. She and her children were the only family that managed to survive without cannibalism. Though her journey was harrowing, her determination was heroic.
Many other moving stories are told throughout the book as well. Miriam Davis Colt wrote about her ill-fated expedition with her family to Kansas in 1862 that left her financially and emotionally bankrupt. Martha Dartt Maxwell, a Colorado naturalist who opposed slavery, collected and displayed animal skins and bones and eventually became a respected taxidermist, despite a lack of education. Sarah Winnemucca was a Paiute Indian from Nevada who was an outspoken activist and seeker of peace. In 1883, she became the first Native American woman to be published with a copyright. These are just a few of the great women featured in the book.
I love the fact that most of the women in these stories were not really famous, yet they overcame great obstacles and are symbols of the many courageous women throughout history who were not honored for their triumphs. What I find most interesting is the methods that author Brandon Marie Miller had to use to collect facts to write this book, including using journal entries, song lyrics and handwritten letters. Because of her impressive efforts, children can learn about those who lived before them and how they helped pave the way for the modern lives they enjoy today.
Women of the Frontier is culturally significant, and I highly recommend that all middle school and high school students read this book, both boys and girls. It is sure to open up some educational discussions about the hardships of earlier Americans and how their determination led to great things. It makes us wonder what courageous women ancestors we may have had yet don’t know about. Times certainly have changed, but what endures is the will to live and the desire to leave our mark on this world.