For Oregonians, a caustic, cracker-barrel account of what their pioneer predecessors were up to; for almost anyone else, too much lowdown on personalities and enmities of little outside consequence. Not that Clark sees his state's settlers as a special, no-'count breed: ""The westering Americans were a bark-skinned lot--few saints if many martyrs--and at all times riveted to the main chance."" But once past the clashes between the Hudson's Bay Company ""brigades,"" based at Fort Vancouver, and the American trappers, heading out from Taos and St. Louis, once past Jedediah Smith and the Mountain Men generally, the narrative is less, a history of the settlement of Oregon (little is said, for instance, of travel on the overland trails) than a tale of internal conflicts, which even the burly, implacable/ benevolent figure of Dr. John McLoughlin, commander of Fort Vancouver, can't lend ail-compelling stature. Especially since his opposite number, for most of the story, is pusillanimous Jason Lee, cop-out missionary to the Indians and founder of the Willamette Settlement. And while Clark's delving into primary sources, published and unpublished, does cast additional, intriguing light on some long-disputed episodes (like the ""Flathead Indians' "" purported plea for Biblical enlightenment), many of his ostensible corrections entail merely a shift of emphasis. (Historians don't pretend that Marcus Whitman was the leader of the 1843 emigrant train; but he did lead the way--with or without an Indian guide-through the mountains into Oregon.) Clark's bluntness, too, is not without effect: writing from the viewpoint of the times, he refers to the Indians as ""savages,"" but doesn't ignore either their shrewdness or what they were up against. Cumulatively, however, his stark, high-contrast characterizations are barely distinguishable from caricature (typically, ""David Logan had a genius for advocacy and a compelling thirst""). On home ground, then, the book's astringency and detail may commend it as an alternative to more rosy-hued, broad-swathed versions of the same events; but the appeal is likely to diminish with distance--it's not exactly a surprise, after all, to hear that the West wasn't settled by milk-and-honey types.
Pub Date: April 20, 1981
Page Count: -
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1981
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