Days of Hope, Miles of Misery: Love and Loss on the Oregon Trail, by Fred Dickey
There's Always Been a California... Always Will Be.
Days of Hope, Miles of Misery is a fantastic book. Its unique, appealing cover is a work of art and beckons a reader within, just as the promise of a “land of milk and honey” calls pioneer spirits from thousands of miles away.
My favorite part of the book is the cast of characters, the families that set out together from Independence, Missouri, in May of 1845. The expedition is led by a committee that includes a man in his mid-sixties named Shadrach Penney. The most important decision the committee makes is hiring a guide. Their choice is Nimrod Lee, described as a whipcord lean, enigmatic mountain-man guide in his early thirties. “He was a mix of ornery and sentimental: the first when it was needed, the second when the situation allowed.” During Nimrod’s interview, Penney declared, “You could be a hard dog to keep on the porch.” At another point in the book, Nimrod admits, “A mountain man don’t never know where a fresh trail will take him.” It’s that sense of wanderlust that makes the tragic Oregon Trail so compelling.
College-educated Hannah Vogel married Abel Blanc in 1831 and worked with him in his medical practice with dreams of becoming a doctor herself. Despite her experience, qualifications, and ability to answer their questions, the men who served on the board of examiners refused to grant her a license to practice. In the early years of their marriage, Hannah and Abel had a daughter, Rachel, and a son, Billy. When Abel died in 1843, Hannah begrudgingly accepted Ed Spencer’s marriage proposal and quickly came to regret it. Like most of the families depicted, the Spencer family features an adventure-seeking husband who expects to make an easy fortune. The rest of the family is dragged along, forced from their safe, comfortable homes. As a villain, Ed goes well beyond despicable. As a hero and protagonist, Hannah soars.
Many start and few finish. Twenty-six wagons began the journey. If it weren’t for Hannah and Nimrod, nobody would have survived the perilous, ill-fated, cross-country road trip. The children suffered mightily. “Their whimpering was sandpaper on her heart.” The odds were always against them. “If you start too late, you won’t make it over the mountains before the snows hit. Start too soon and mud or high water can trap or drown you. Start unprepared, you can die out there.”
I know it is challenging to write about the past based on the way things were then. But, as a reader, I want to stay within the setting, in this case, 1845. In this book, the narrator frequently appears to explain things. Here’s an example: “What Hannah had learned from observation, but couldn’t frame scientifically, is that willow bark contains salicylate which in its active form becomes salicylic acid, and is closely related to aspirin of a later day.” Locations are also frequently explained in terms of what they would become in the future. I think this excellent book would have been even better if it kept us in 1845.
At the end of the journey, I’m left wondering. If I were alive in 1845, would I have sold everything I owned and risked it all for a chance to live in the promised land? Yet, even having finished the book and knowing how perilous a journey it was, I’m left with a wondrous feeling of adventure and discovery. Probably, very few survivors would speak of their migration in such terms. The author’s character, Mr. Penney puts it this way: “Since the Garden of Eden first opened for business, there’s always been a California of a hundred different names to dream about and gamble on. Always will be.”
Days after finishing it, this phenomenal book is still on my mind. I highly recommend it.