Pioneer Trials

By , Keith Henderson is on the Monitor staff.

FAR FROM HOME: FAMILIES OF THE WESTWARD JOURNEY by Lillian Schlissel, Byrd Gibbens, and Elizabeth Hampsten,

New York: Schocken Books, 264 pp., $19.95

THE frontier beckons; the family binds.

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That tension between the urge to expand, to push into the unknown and promising, and the need to preserve an intimate, protecting core of domesticity is the heart of ``Far From Home: Families of the Westward Journey.''

The authors relate the stories of three pioneering families - largely through the words of mothers and daughters preserved in old correspondence and later autobiographical writings. The words are often awkward, yet powerful in depth of feeling and in what they imply rather than state.

Abigail Malick homesteaded in the 1850s with her husband, George, on the banks of the Columbia River in Oregon Territory. She wrote regularly to a grown daughter left behind in Ohio. Marital strains are a recurring theme: ``You know how he [George] is as well as I do and I have not Mutch Com Fourt with him but he is the father of All My Children And so it is and I have to Beare it.''

She also has to bear the death of her two oldest sons. One drowned during the trip West; the other never returns from a romp to the gold fields in California. A third son grows up shiftless, uninterested in the work of the farm. A daughter marries a gambler and later has bouts of insanity. Another younger girl ends up joining a wandering minstrel band. But Abigail, a resourceful, gritty woman endures, outliving her husband and most of her children. The new land, for all its trials, has a hold on her. Her family scattered, she finds solace in the fertile soil, her garden and orchards.

Not so Maggie Brown. Her roots are in the genteel life of Virginia. But her husband, an erstwhile doctor, feels the pull of the West. In 1880 Charles Brown succumbs, heading to the bustling, ephemeral boom towns of Colorado and leaving an anxious wife behind, with promises to return a wealthy man.

But Maggie ends up following her husband West. First to Bonanza, a ragtag mining hamlet in the Rockies, then to Rincon, a dusty crossroads in New Mexico. She loses one child, then another. And Charles loses out in one speculation after another - but his dreams of gold seem inexhaustible. The parched ground nurtures little but ``horny toads.'' ``We have no money at all,'' Maggie writes to her father. ``Dr. Brown is in debt for what we had to get to eat. He is almost in rags & I am no better. I think our corn will die.'' When Maggie returns for a visit to her beloved Virginia, she feels a stranger. That arid, open land has changed her.

The Martins and Nehers, ethnic Germans from the Russian steppes, had even harsher tribulations. They piled children and sparse belongings into filthy steamships, then into trains and wagons for the journey West. Their first winter in the Dakotas, 1910, was spent in a drafty boxcar - then in low, windowless sod huts on the featureless prairie. Hunger was a constant. Only the benevolence of neighbors kept the families going.

Life was hardest for the immigrant women, besieged by hungry children and husbands reared to be domestic autocrats. Pauline Diede, daughter of Christina Neher, wrote, ``Pioneer mothers, like my own, journeyed through life meeting hardships and denials, many dying of a broken heart for want of a word of praise, and for knowing how much they had left behind.''

All three accounts in ``Far From Home'' are stripped of the romance typical in tales of the West. But it was romance, the promise of freedom and renewal, that motivated people like Abigail Malick, Charles Brown, and Fred Martin. Their families suffered and sometimes splintered. As the authors note, ``The space of an uncreated frontier beckons and promises escape from the tyrannies of family obligations and compromises.''

Such people helped define the American dream and myth. We still invoke their spirit and their strengths. It's well to have a book like this to remind us, too, of their trials and frailties.

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