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Five Reasons to Read - And Write - the Oregon Trail with guest blogger Kathleen D. Bailey

 

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!

~*~*~*~*~*~

Five Reasons to Read - And Write - the Oregon Trail with guest blogger Kathleen D. Bailey
Two distinct sets of villains. Two orphaned children. A man without a country and a woman with too much past...All in a rambunctious young country where anything goes, especially in the West. Seriously. What can go wrong?

“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.


Five Reasons to Read - And Write - the Oregon Trail with guest blogger Kathleen D. Bailey
Kathleen Bailey is a journalist and novelist with 40 years’ experience in the nonfiction, newspaper and inspirational fields. Born in 1951, she was a child in the 50s, a teen in the 60s, a young adult in the 70s and a young mom in the 80s. It’s been a turbulent, colorful time to grow up, and she’s enjoyed every minute of it and written about most of it. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband David. They have two grown daughters.

Connect with Kathy at Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn 

 

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) 



Who Makes the Meaning in a Book?

 Happy Summer!


School ended yesterday. Today is the first day of summer vacation, so I promise you won't have to read middle school-inspired posts for a while after today.

Who Makes the Meaning in a Book?


But today, we do have one more. I recently read Lord of the Flies with my 8th grade class. The book is old (older than me!) and a lot of people don't like it, but I have so many activities that we do with it, that the book really comes alive. I'm always stunned when students tell me it's one of their favorite books we've read.


This year, after we finished, I asked them to reflect on this quote by the author William Golding.

When asked about the meaning of his book, he replied:

“There have been so many interpretations of the story that I'm not going to choose between them. Make your own choice. They contradict each other, the various choices. The only choice that really matters, the only interpretation of the story, if you want one, is your own. Not your teacher's, not your professor's, not mine, not a critic's, not some authority's. The only thing that matters is, first, the experience of being in the story, moving through it. Then any interpretation you like. If it's yours, then that's the right one, because what's in a book is not what an author thought he put into it, it's what the reader gets out of it.”


I love this answer so much.

I was thinking about it with two different caps on my head - as the teacher who asks students to consider the meaning of the story, but also as an author who is in the business of making meaning out of words.

I was really interested to hear my students' thoughts - both as their teacher and as an author.


It turns out that the line that most spoke to them was  "The only thing that matters is, first, the experience of being in the story, moving through it."


One student, in explaining how she had moved through the story stated, "Through the characters, I got to experience the chaos, the peace, the sadness, and the thrill of everything that happened."

Another said: "In some parts of the book, I felt like I was actually in the book and moving through it. But there were parts where I did not get this feeling. An example where I did not get this feeling is when the hunters went hunting I didn’t really feel the story moving. The part where I felt the story moving along was when everyone was working together and not fighting."

But a third said "There were parts of the book where I felt as if I was really going through the motion of everything and other parts where I was left confused. Some parts that I really connected to were the murders. When both Piggy and Simon died I truly felt like I was there watching it happen."


Another: "I felt like I was  on the island with all the other boys I felt like I was one of the little ones watching everything fold in itself, watching Jack become a brutal savage and watch Ralph losing control and seeing Piggy get killed I really felt part of the story I was reading."



They were also really eager to tell me the meaning they took from the book. I think William Golding would have been proud of the range of thoughts. They took his words to heart: "If it's yours, then that's the right one."



 I think this book was about how people can get insane and out of control with an obsession with a passion, they have while others try and prevent it but end up getting hurt in the process.
 

What are we really without manners and common sense? Savages? That would make us no different than animals. We hide behind a mask of intelligence and basic knowledge to separate how similar we are compared to animals. Without all we have learned, we’re basically just a vessel driven by emotions of hatred and greed. Would we really know right from wrong if we didn’t have common knowledge or at least look like we have the brains? It really felt overwhelming to interpret so much. Then again, it would make sense. The only difference is that we are more evolved than animals. We have the common sense to just go around killing people, there are usually reasons behind it. But sometimes, there isn’t a reason behind it. Does that make us unstable to live in such a “perfect” society? If we compare ourselves to savages, then killing would be completely normal right? Or would it?

 

I believe the book is really about the true nature of us. How we act when theres no adults or rules around. When we can do anything without being punished since theres no boundaries.

This book is about nothing more than boys trying to survive on their own and trying to keep their insanity (sic) in the process. 

 

While the topic of change was a big message of the book, I do believe there is another main message. Lord of the Flies also shows us the importance of rules and civilization. Once the boys turned away from Ralph all humanity and civilization were lost. They began to become too accustomed to Jack’s uncivilized methods. Without any rules or grasp on humanity boys such as Roger turned from normal kind kids into animals. It was because of this lack of civilization and order that Piggy and Simon died so tragically. It was also why it was so hard for the boys to look at themselves once the navy found them. They knew they could never truly return home because a part of them would always be on that island. 



So why am I talking about this today? 


Because as a teacher, I am privileged to have the opportunity to really talk to readers about their reading, and that is invaluable to me not only as their teacher, but as an author. Hearing what matters to them as readers, learning how invested they were in making their own meaning from the books gives  author me something to ponder. 


As authors, are we trying to impose our meaning on our readers? Are we heavy-handed with our message, or do we wield our pen delicately, giving the reader options, offering a chance for them to create their own message from our books. Especially if it's a message they need in their lives.


As I was pondering this, I was also thinking about a book I had recently read. Because I could really relate to the widowed character, I probably took a completely different meaning from the book than a different reader would - and I appreciated the nuances of the character that allowed me to do so.


And that leads me to thinking about craft and how we make our books the best possible experience for readers because, to quote another student, 


He didn't write the book to give it a specific ending (message) but to entertain the readers.


And of course that is what we have to keep at the forefront as we write.


One of my students was rather succinct in describing Golding's craft. 

Mr. Golding used good words to set the mood for the story. 


As writers, that is our task, to use good words to entertain.

If only it could be that easy!

But easy or not, it is the responsibility we assumed when we chose to write stories. Our good words have the power to affect readers.


One of my students commented: "The experiences of reading books helps us to open our eyes to different wonders in imagination. It leads us to creating our own works and maybe inspiring others."


And to finally quote a wise student - "That is the great thing about reading."


And we get to inspire that. How lucky are we to be writers???


I'd love to hear your thoughts - as readers and writers.



Who Makes the Meaning in a Book?


*Photos courtesy of Pixabay

Five Reasons to Read - And Write - the Oregon Trail with guest blogger Kathleen D. BaileyWho Makes the Meaning in a Book?

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