Five Reasons to Read - And Write - the Oregon Trail with guest blogger Kathleen D. Bailey
by Kathleen D. Bailey, author of Redemption's Hope
Twenty years ago, I had a glimmer of an idea for a novel. An impoverished young widow takes a place as cook on a wagon train, only to discover that the scout for that train is the man who betrayed her three years before. He’s under contract and she has nowhere else to go, so they find themselves slogging across the plains together. Old issues come out, new ones form in the pressure cooker that is 100 wagons filled with 200 to 300 scared, tired people. By the time they reach Oregon Country, both have changed immeasurably.
That gleam in this author’s eye became my first published book, “Westward Hope,” in 2019. I’ve since followed it with “Settlers’ Hope,” 2020, and “Redemption’s Hope,” out July 22 of this year. “Settlers’ Hope” takes place in an Oregon Country hamlet, with survivors of the trail, and “Redemption’s Hope” follows the trail in reverse, as Jenny Thatcher looks for the Native man she thinks she can love. But the Trail marks everything they do, from Oona Moriarty’s quest to find her brother (“Settlers’ Hope”) to Jenny’s retracing the route she took in 1846.
The Oregon Trail. The Great Migration. Opening the West. The Wagon Train era. Its names are legend; its legends are legend. Who hasn’t heard stories of the Americans who shook off their newly-minted country, less than a century after the Revolution, to see what lay beyond those hills?
The Oregon Trail is a gold strike (another beloved Western trope) for the reader.
1. It has tremendous range, from the transcendent novels of Jane Kirkpatrick to a simple novella. Choose your own adventure, there’s plenty of Trail literature, from an afternoon’s read in the hammock to something you can write a thesis about.
2. It can take you to another place, right in your own country. The Plains, desert and Western mountains are an exotic setting to anyone who’s never been there. Chimney Rock, Castle Rock, Independence Rock. Buffalo hunts. Amber fields of grain and snow-capped mountains. Bonus: the characters you’re reading about haven’t seen it either.
3. Oregon Trail books are a history lesson. You learn what they ate, how they ate it, what they packed and what they did when supplies ran low. You learn about the Louisiana Purchase and “Manifest Destiny,” all wrapped around a good story.
4. About that story…Anything can happen when you throw a group of strangers together under almost impossible conditions. You learn about the resilience of the human spirit, and also just how nasty we can be.
5. In the hands of a Christian author, Trail stories are a venue for strengthening your faith. (See #5, below).
As satisfying as the Trail is for readers, it’s just as big a boon for writers.
1. The Oregon Trail and its time period (1840s till after The War) is pretty forgiving from a research standpoint. You don’t need to know a lot of battles, dates and who massacred whom. (I’m doing a Lexington-and-Concord story right now, and believe me, there’s no comparison.) You do have to be careful if you throw in real historical characters, making them as accurate as possible, and you do need to have a rough framework of what’s going on Back East. But the real drama in your story will be between the men and women who board those wagons in St. Joseph, Missouri.
2. And drama there will be. Everyone on the Trail had a story. They were running from something or someone (Michael Moriarty in “Westward Hope”), they were running TO something or someone (Oona Moriarty in “Settlers’ Hope”), they were at rock bottom and had nothing better to do (Caroline Pierce O’Leary in “Westward Hope”), or they were good stable people who happened to have wanderlust (Ben Harkness in “Westward Hope”). Face a couple of them off against each other and watch what happens.
3. The Trail itself becomes a character, as the emigrants battle, well, everything. They fight river currents, arid deserts, plagues on their cattle and plagues on themselves. As they reach the higher plains, they throw out almost everything they brought, to make it easier on their suffering horses or oxen, and they learn what really matters. Or they don’t. (Ina Prince in “Westward Hope.”) People die on the Trail and are buried in places their loved ones know they’ll never visit again. Families become fluid, with parents taking in orphaned children and elders dying in the dirt.
4. By its very nature, the wagon train lends itself to high drama. It’s like a small town on wheels, and it has the best and worst of small towns. There’s gossip, backbiting, challenges to the wagon master’s authority. There are petty cruelties. A person’s past catches up with them on the trail, no matter how hard they try to outrun it. But there’s also transcendent kindness, as the emigrants help one another with everything from a loose wheel to childbirth. They are in this together. They don’t have anyone else.
5. And it remains one of the best venues for exploring our Christian faith in fiction. Like Abraham, these pioneers went out to a land they knew not, or didn’t know enough. Like the Israelites, they turned their backs on their former lives in the hopes of something better. The Trail reduced every man, woman and child to their essence, and when they came to the other coast, most were forever changed. In the hands of an inspirational fiction author, at least part of the change will be spiritual.
When I was doing library talks on “Westward Hope,” I occasionally encountered people who were skeptical about an inspirational novel. They would ask me, “Just how much religion is there in your book?” It’s a simple question to answer, I’m an inspy author, my faith permeates the books – I hope. My standard answer to “how much religion” is, “I wouldn’t want to take on the Oregon Trail without a belief in something bigger than myself.” There are no atheists in foxholes, or so the saying goes, and I doubt there were many on the Trail.
So check out the Great Migration, and I may be joining you. I thought I was done with the Trail, but new situations and characters are kicking around in my head, and I just might let them out!
“Redemption’s Hope” is the third and last installment of Kathleen D. Bailey’s “Western Dreams” series, following “Westward Hope” and “Settlers’ Hope.” The novel takes Jenny Thatcher, a secondary character in the first two books on the ride of her life, from the Oregon Country to New Mexico to San Antonio to New Orleans and back, as she looks for her dream and finds herself in the bargain.
White Bear, the Cheyenne brave, has a foot in two worlds but feels at home in neither. He longs to reconnect with the spirited white woman who had sought refuge with his family three years before. Is his true home with “Blue Eyes,” the woman he knew for only three days?
Only if he finds her.
What do you love about reading (or writing) about the Oregon Trail?
One commenter will win an ebook of Redemption's Hope and one commenter will win a New England gift pack (US only for gift pack)