I think most everyone knows about the westward migration via wagon train but I admit that I had never heard of the Mormon handcart pioneers until I read a summary of Sandra Dallas' new novel, True Sisters. Dallas tells the story of the real life Martin Handcart company, a group of about 650 individuals (mostly Scottish, English and Scandinavian) who, in 1856, signed up to push handcarts from Iowa City to Salt Lake City, a journey of about 1300 miles. This group of Mormon converts followed the path of previous handcart companies to reach the promised land of Zion.
Dallas tells this story through the experiences of four women traveling with the company. Nannie and Ellie are actual sisters who, along with Ellie’s husband Andrew, are looking to start a new life. Jessie is a hardworking farm girl traveling with her two brothers hoping to build a successful farm in the promised land of Utah. Anne is a loyal wife following her husband even though she is not a believer in the Mormon faith. Maude, an older woman, becomes a valuable member of the company due to her mid-wife and doctoring skills (especially since both Anne and Ellie are pregnant).
This journey is a disaster from start to finish for the company. The ship that took them from England to America was delayed and once they reached Iowa City there were not enough supplies to go around. Each person was only allowed to take 17 pounds of belongings in their handcart so many people were forced to abandon the majority of their possessions in Iowa City. The carts were hastily made and of poor quality. The journey itself took them through scorching prairies, treacherous rivers and across snow-packed mountains. Many people died on this trek and many more may have died if a rescue party had not been sent out from Salt Lake to find them. Throughout all of the hardships, the women help one another through their tragedies and triumphs and are able to keep their faith.
The women in this story are fictional but the circumstances were very real. Dallas did her research and had members of the LDS church proofread her manuscript before it was published. The story itself is beautifully written but I could not get past the voice in my head screaming “what is wrong with these people? Who thinks it is a good idea to walk 1300 miles pushing/pulling a handcart, especially while pregnant?” I kept thinking, “is this going to be another Donner party?” I understand that the majority of these people were trying to escape religious persecution and make a better life for their families but that wasn’t the case for everyone. For instance, Anne’s husband sold their successful business in London after he converted to the Mormon faith and made the decision to travel to Zion without consulting his wife. He made this decision without thinking that the journey might not be the best situation for his pregnant wife and young children.
Despite all my misgivings, this is an interesting story and I did learn something about the history of the Mormon religion. The trek these people made is absolutely a testament to the strength of the human spirit. Are you wondering if all of the women make it to Zion? To get the answer you will have to read the book.
To learn more about the Mormon Handcart Pioneers click on the following links.
Reenactments (yes there are reenactments of the trek)
~Amy, Adult Services