The Bookworm Sez
‘Women of the Frontier’ gives modern families a glimpse into the nation’s past

“Women of the Frontier” by Brandon Marie Miller c.2013, Chicago Review Press; $19.95 / $21.95 Canada; 246 pages, includes index
By Terri Schlichenmeyer

Your bedroom is just perfect – finally.

You’ve got everything just where you want it. The bed is comfortable, your possessions are on nice shelves, and you can get a little bit of privacy if you want it. Yep, this bedroom is much better than the one in your last house.

Spending your entire childhood in one place is pretty rare these days; in fact, Americans move up to 14 times in a lifetime. So imagine moving across the country on foot, leaving everything you love behind, carrying your belongings – and sometimes your children – on your back. In “Women of the Frontier” by Brandon Marie Miller, you’ll see what it was like.

Nearly two hundred years ago, when the United States was hit by economic depression, Americans began looking for a ray of hope. They’d been reading the accounts of traders, trappers, and adventurers in the West and so, beginning around 1841, many people packed their belongings in wagons and carts and headed to California , Oregon , and parts west of the Mississippi River.

Terri Schlichenmeyer

Most of them were penniless, but they were optimistic. The newly expanded U.S. held opportunity and a chance at a new life. Many of the emigrants came from Germany and Scandinavia . Most were single men, but a relatively small handful were women.

For the women, the decision to emigrate was usually made by their husbands and while wives eagerly anticipated the possibility of better lives, they hated leaving their homes, possessions, and families – maybe forever.

Their trip usually began with great excitement that quickly soured. River crossings were dangerous, Indians weren’t always friendly, the heat was unbearable, and walking for hours each day sapped a person’s energy. Pioneers slept in the dirt and meals (when there was food to be had) came from an open fire. The burden was greater for mothers of young children and women who were pregnant.

And yet, there were advantages to being a woman on the frontier.

Women were allowed to own land long before they were allowed to vote. Since feminine company was scarce, women often had their choice of men and divorce was easily attainable. Women owned businesses, wore pants, escaped slavery, and found work. They could make a lot of money – or they could lose everything.

Edge of my seat. That’s where I was while reading “Women of the Frontier.”

Author Brandon Marie Miller packs this book with excitement, heartbreak, and adventure as well as blunt truth and painful realities, and she’s very adept at making the narrative personal. What I mean is that it’s hard to read what’s here without imagining yourself in the pitiful shoes of our foremothers. Could you withstand losing your family, pets, and precious possessions, bit by bit? How would you start over with nothing? Those are sobering scenarios, and definite food for thought.

While this book is meant for readers ages 12 and up, I absolutely think adults of any age will enjoy it, too. Historians, feminists, adventure-lovers, and whiners will surely find “Women of the Frontier” to be very moving.

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. Terri has been reading since she was 3 years old and she never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 12,000 books.