A spirited, bumpy ride about a Pony Express rider in America’s antebellum West.
Bailey’s sprawling historical fiction chronicles the life and times of James, an orphan and gifted horseman who, after responding to an advertisement, joins the Pony Express, the newly established postal service delivering mail throughout the treacherous American frontier. Though he’s raised by Mormon settlers, James receives a blessing as an infant—and the name Laughing Grass—from a Paiute elder, moments after the death of his parents, which forges a lifelong bond between him and the Native Americans whose way of life is threatened by western expansion. His conflicting loyalties become the book’s central tension, a microcosm of the culture clash on the frontier. Yet the resolution fails to match the complexity of the issue, and the novel ultimately shifts focus to the onset of the Civil War. Nonetheless, some readers will enjoy the wide scope and numerous characters, although the secondary plotlines offering glimpses of frontier life can sometimes feel incidental and unnecessary. Some implicit sexual and violent content best suits the tale for teenage or adult fans of YA historical fiction who’ll appreciate the genre’s archetypal characters: an unerringly noble protagonist, dastardly villains and a beautiful love interest who longs for life beyond the confines of 19th-century domesticity. Though Bailey’s writing relies too heavily on sentence fragments for dramatic effect—“He would leave. Before the day’s heat made the white child turn the color of sunset”—and her characters’ vernacular (marked mostly by inconsistently dropped g’s) lacks a sense of authenticity, her prose is fluid and readable enough for adult and young adult readers to enjoy. Despite its length, the novel comprises short, episodic chapters that keep the book moving along at a rollicking pace.
Devoted historical-fiction fans will find something to love, although the story isn’t fresh or sophisticated enough to write home about.