As mentioned on my main California page, Walk On Earth a Stranger is the first in Rae Carson’s Gold Seer trilogy, and it mainly covers Leah’s journey from Georgia to California in 1849–and the historical information is fantastic! Because not much of it actually takes place in California, however, it’s not the best book for my California list, and unfortunately, I wasn’t very impressed with the landscape descriptions at all.
Although a large portion of the book is spent crossing the Great Plains, the descriptions were really minimal. Carson says they travel, “Through land so lovely it’s a pain in my chest,” and then changes the subject. Really? That’s it? Not a word about the grass, the endless horizon, the colors, nothing. Just “lovely.”
And there’s this: “We go all afternoon until we find a spot with the three necessities–water, grass, and timber.” Timber? They’re on the Plains! There IS no timber–that’s the whole point of the Great Plains! That’s why the pioneers built houses out of sod and into the sides of shallow hills. At one point, near the Kansas River, Carson writes, “I gaze about as we ride, admiring the wild green fields and their copses of tall woods, stretching as far as the eye can see.” I suppose it’s possible that there were a few small stretches of cottonwood trees, particularly along the rivers, but not “as far as the eye can see.” Both Haven’s Wake and The Meaning of Names mention the characters in the books having planted the only trees for miles around–both plantings would have been years later than 1849–there were no trees until the pioneers planted them.
Other bits, however, Carson does get spot on, and it’s obvious she’s done the research–the parts about the cholera, including the difficulties of sanitation related to the trail itself, were eye opening.
Huge swaths of trail are grazed out and fouled with manure. The good watering places are much the same–churned up and dirtied with the waste of the folks ahead of us. … Cholera usually springs up in big cities. A wagon train isn’t a big city, but it’s definitely dirty and crowded. We’re all jammed together, treading over the same ground and cooking and sleeping, hour after hour, day after day, in the same tracks as the wagons before us. It’s not like a barn that I can muck out and clean up. It’s just muck.
And she gets the Platte River right as well: “It’s a mile wide and an inch deep.” The company passes by Fort Kearny, precursor to the Kearny, Nebraska that we read about, along with the Platte, in The Echo Maker. It must be summertime by the time they go through the area, but there aren’t any birds. There are coyotes, though, and prairie dogs, and even a buffalo stampede.
It’s not possible. How can there be so many of one animal in the world? They are a frothing sea of heads bowed low and whipping tails and flying mud. Craven grabs my arm. “C’mon, you fool–unless you want to get trampled.”
Several of the wagons are knocked over, one man is trampled and left with a broken leg (which Carson describes being cleaned and set by a medical student in the group), and Carson completes the buffalo scene with the pioneers killing off dozens of the huge animals and leaving them lying on the ground to rot, taking only a modicum of meat to eat that day, without even making jerky or trying to preserve the hides–also historically accurate.
There’s plenty of prejudice against Native Americans as well. Several sites I looked at, including this page about cholera and other dangers on the Oregon-California Trails Association site, indicate that concern about Native Americans was much higher than warranted, given the number of such incidents compared to other dangers, so Carson’s characterizations about the feelings of those in the wagon train toward Native Americans are probably pretty accurate–including purposely leaving the measles-infected blanket where it is likely to be taken by the Native Americans.
I would be pretty surprised, however, if the attitudes of the main characters were at all typical. The narrator, Leah (pronounced with two syllables, I suspect, given that her nickname is Lee), remembers that “Mama used to say that Jefferson had a noble dignity about him, which was her way of pointing out his Indian blood while pretending to be polite.” This seems a very Southern thing to say, and is probably realistic–as long as the mother was shown to become less polite about it as Leah became more and more friendly with the young man. That doesn’t seem to have happened, though.
Leah’s parents were also very friendly with Free Jim, the freed slave who ran the local general store (and who, according to Carson’s Author’s Note, was a real historical figure). This sort of literary device allows the author to show slavery and prejudice against freed slaves and against Native Americans (and those of mixed blood), without tainting the main characters–because they don’t share the same values. However, I find it a problematic technique.
It’s just not believable–the views expressed by Leah and her parents throughout the book just seem far too liberal for the time, and they don’t really give any compelling reasons for those views. The book is set in 1849–not that long before the start of the Civil War. While there is some vague mention of free states and slave states, there is none of the political tension we saw in Raintree County–nor the detailed descriptions of the various attempts to prevent the war that had been happening since at least 1820 when the Missouri Compromise was passed. When Leah observes Free Jim being treated unfairly in Independence, Missouri, she actually attempts to leap to his defense, and starts to upbraid the store owner on Jim’s behalf.
“Hey, you there,” the store clerk interjects. “You going to buy anything? Because if not, I’d rather you didn’t clutter my doorway.” We’re nowhere near the doorway. “Show some respect,” I snap. “Mr. Boisclair is a free Negro and a respected businessman, and his shop is about ten times bigger and cleaner than this godfor–” … I let him drag me out the door, even though I’m seething.
I’m sorry, but that just breaks the bounds of credulity for a character in 1849–for the shopowner too, truth be told–he was far more polite about asking Jim to move on than seems likely. Leah’s later reaction to finding that the slave of a traveler who dies has been following the train and stealing food with the help of some of the other travelers is a bit more realistic–she knows he’d be likely to be killed for the theft and so she grudgingly agrees to hide it if they stop the thieving. This actually shows the moral complexity of the issues of the day much better than her self-righteous indignation in Independence, and I think it’s a better writing technique.
“You’ve done wrong, Hampton.” He doesn’t argue, but his face screws up tight. “No man should be a slave, but no man should be a thief either.” I think I’ve spoken fairly, but it makes him angry. “Can’t steal my labor from me my whole life and then accuse me of theft.” I open my mouth to protest but think better of it. Was I stealing from Uncle Hiram when I took my own possessions and Daddy’s colts besides? … I nod, even though I don’t like it one bit. After a pause, Hampton meets my eye and nods too. For better or worse, I’m now part of their conspiracy.
The family’s attitudes toward those of Native American blood (mixed or not) seems unlikely as well. I can understand that their views of Jefferson–a young man whose mother was Cherokee but whom they’ve known for years–might be favorable, but I find it harder to credit that those opinions extend to all Native Americans of all tribes, as Leah’s views seem to.
Even more problematic, for me, was Leah’s reaction to the revelation that several of the young men in the wagon train are what was sometimes referred to at the time as “confirmed bachelors.” Her reaction? … What reaction? She doesn’t even blink at their suggestion that she might be a homosexual herself (she’s posing as a boy, and they approach her because they’ve gotten to know her and have seen her watching Jefferson).
“You’re one of us.” … “What do you mean I’m one of you?” “A confirmed bachelor. There’s a place for us out there. To live the way we want to live, without interference.” He looks up to gauge my reaction. “I…” … Jasper must trust me completely to be so frank. Or maybe secrets have a way of making people so lonely that they eventually take a risk on someone. “Do you want to get married someday?” he persists. And never have anything of my own? “Lord, no. But…” I shut my mouth. … “So you’re a confirmed bachelor?” he says. My breath feels tight in my chest. Jasper is on to the fact that I have a secret or two; he just hasn’t figured out what they are.
She has virtually no reaction at all, until something makes her wonder if they’ve seen through her disguise and know she’s a girl. But the concept of homosexuality? Not a blush, not a double take–nothing. Which is all very liberal and great–but it’s totally anachronistic. In 1849 no one would have taken the suggestion that they were homosexual totally in stride without reaction. Even in 1930s Chicago that wasn’t something you talked about openly, as we saw in Letters Never Sent.
But, as I said before, much of the historical information is very accurate and detailed, and it’s worked into the story very naturally–despite the detail it doesn’t seem contrived or forced for the most part. Many of the little tidbits were really interesting, like the Georgia gold rush–yes, there really was one, and it dried up in the early 1840s–Independence Rock, Wyoming, where many pioneers really did carve their names, and Devil’s Gate and the Forty Mile Desert. *
“The mountains don’t look so bad from here,” I say to change the subject. “We ought to reach the Devil’s Gate around noon. You’ll know it when you see it. It’s a narrow gap between two cliffs, like a doorway in a garden wall.” “Why such a gloomy name?” “Because once we pass through it, the rest of the road is a bloody hell. Sulfur springs with boiling water. Hills so steep that wagons roll right back down. Mountains so high you can’t breathe on top. Rivers without water. And deserts in every direction that take three or four days to cross.”
Although I was able to mentally follow the company’s path for most of the journey, I got a bit lost after Independence Rock, but I was able to find a lot information on the web about various routes. It’s still somewhat confusing to me, but by looking at the online information I was able to connect bits from Carson’s book to what I was seeing and get a better image of where the group was at various times.
I said in my original challenge that I was looking for books where, “the setting becomes another character, and those which deal with some aspect of the people, geography, or history of the state.” While Walk on Earth a Stranger did not do a great job of really forming an image of the places the group was traveling through (in my opinion), it definitely dealt with history and made the Oregon and California Trails very real.
As I’ve mentioned, Rae Carson’s Walk on Earth a Stranger is the first in a trilogy, and, since the remaining two books take place in California, I will probably read at least the second in the series, Like a River Glorious, and perhaps the third, Into the Bright Unknown. I enjoyed the book and I’m interested in both the continuing historical information and the story of Leah and her gold sensing magic.
But I think, first, I’m going to hang out in San Francisco for a bit!