WOMEN'S DIARIES OF THE WESTWARD JOURNEY by Lillian Schlissel

WOMEN'S DIARIES OF THE WESTWARD JOURNEY

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KIRKUS REVIEW

OH LET US NOT GO."" Such marked reluctance was a common response among women who faced the journey westward, Schlissel (Women's Studies, Brooklyn College) convincingly demonstrates from her study of 96 diaries and several exchanges of letters; the men made the decision, the women went along primarily to hold their families together. Of the 96 diarists, only two were single. Many were young, many were pregnant, all relied upon the presence of other women to make ""a social fabric of their lives on the trail."" Other women were important not simply in aiding in the strenuous chores (from the typical women's tasks of baking or caring for children to the men's tasks that often fell to them); they also helped in such basic ways as using their wide skirts to curtain other women as they performed their bodily functions, creating a rare and elusive privacy. Women also clung to their starched aprons and petticoats: ""their sense of social role and sexual identity"" (to maintain, Schlissel suggests, ""the careful balances that had been worked out between husbands and wives in rural communities""). Husbands' and wives' perceptions differed too: men were more likely to stress progress along the trail and the danger of Indian attack, women to see the many graves along the route and regard the Indians as helpful guides and resources. The four separate diaries that follow Schlissel's compound historical narrative reflect changes in the actual transit decade by decade--as well as the courage demanded of women throughout the period. Amelia Knight, an 1853 pioneer traveling with seven children and arriving with eight, described the childbirth matter-of-factly: ""A few days later my eighth child was born. After this we picked up and ferried across the Columbia River, utilizing skiff, canoes and flatboat to get across, taking three days to complete."" Jane Gould Tourtillot, an 1862 traveler, endured Indian attacks to make it from Ohio to California, only to find herself a widow within the year. More tightly woven than Joanna Stratton's Pioneer Women (p. 205), and more revealing (and, perhaps, trustworthy) for being based on diaries of the moment rather than on reminiscences of the past.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1981
ISBN: 0805211764
Publisher: Schocken