A lively if not especially original debut about a gritty young frontierswoman.
Vicksburg, in July of 1863, is being mercilessly shelled by Yankee cannons. An overwhelmed, ill-equipped Confederate Army doctor, desperately trying to cope, finds himself converted into an amputation machine. Chop a limb, save a life—that’s the grim mantra he keeps repeating. Ann Baxter, 16, is one of those brought to his blood-drenched operating table. Her left arm gone at the shoulder, Ann, homeless and orphaned now, is a prime candidate for self pity—but this is vintage steel magnolia. At her first opportunity, she hooks up with a wagon train heading northwest. She works for her keep under the mean-spirited auspices of an exploitive shrew—until a chance meeting helps her break free with the occupants of a lone wagon driven by a 14-year-old-boy, who, tragically, has just become head of his family: three younger siblings (one an infant), their mother and father dead of cholera. Unhesitatingly, Ann joins forces with them, despite the outraged outcry of a “protector” suddenly wrenched from indolence. After surviving unbelievably harsh weather, near starvation, confrontations with Indians, and a variety of other perils, the group arrives in Comptonsville, Oregon, where new challenges await. There’s the ongoing struggle just to remain a family, for instance. And there’s Chalk, an alcoholic who sees in the indomitable Ann a form of “seriousness that gets things done,” a seriousness and sense of purpose that will eventually lead to his redemption. By extension, it will also lead to Ann’s own fulfillment, though nothing ever comes easily to her or those she loves.
Full of the sort of Old West derring-do that made A.B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky so enthralling, a book to which it bears comparison.