How could she fall in love… with a young man as wild as a mountain lion and as free as the prairie wind?
I’m a big fan of Scholastic’s Sunfire series- in which orphaned teenage girls have to choose between two suitors while dealing with historical disasters and occasionally-anachronistic feminist ideals, so I was all-in on this rival series from Archway/Pocketbooks, featuring some of the largest hoop skirts ever imagined on its covers.
And although I did not like this one as much as most of the Sunfires I’ve read, it still has a lot to recommend it.
The Plot: The reader joins the plot in progress, as 15-year-old Betsy Monroe and her older sister, Willa, guide their team of oxen and covered wagon west, three weeks after the death of their parents.
Although younger, Betsy is the feisty and determined tomboy, claiming to be the best shot in their hometown back east, while 17-year-old Willa is quiet and reserved, content to be bossed around by her younger sister. Seeking to join a wagon train at Fort Kearny, Nebraska to follow through on their parents’ plans to claim a homestead in Oregon, the sisters meet arrogant teenaged frontiersman (frontiersboy?) Charlie Freeman along the way, and Betsy is annoyed to find that he will be one of the scouts with the very wagon train they intend to sign on to!
Michaels doesn’t skimp on the details of death and disease that await the pioneers on the long journey west: cholera epidemics, dangerous river crossings, men crushed in wagon accidents, children who wander away from the train, never to be seen again.
And of course along the way Charlie (a ladies man whose reputation precedes him) and Betsy constantly verbally spar with each other, so the whole train knows that they are secretly in love, L-U-V.
The story is pretty much what you expect, but there are some interesting choices along the way- Betsy is not only spirited and daring, she also proves to be the best at fording the livestock at dangerous river crossings, earning the respect and admiration of the men leading the train, but also requiring her to work harder than any other woman in the party. She’s also beautiful, and an accomplished flirt. I mean, gee whiz, is there anything Betsy Monroe can’t do?
For weeks she had driven her ox team like a man, never complaining and never asking for a lick of help. But had anyone bothered to ask her if she would like to go hunting buffalo? Of course not. She was too frail to do anything so exciting. But not too frail, she though rebelliously, to drag six oxen over half a continent.
Charlie does rescue Betsy from being trampled by a rogue buffalo a few pages later… but he reacts to this (and every subsequent) situation with such good humor and lack of chauvinism that it’s obvious he and Betsy are made for each other.
Which leads to the major difference in tone from the Sunfire counterparts- the romance here is straight-up sexy, such as a description of Charlie’s rippling pecs that actually includes the word “nipple”.
The heat gets turned up even more after Willa marries a widower en route and moves into his wagon, leaving Betsy with the choice of dumping her wagon and most of her possessions on the side of the road and joining them… or taking Charlie into her wagon for the remainder of the trip.
Earlier in the book the wagonmaster had spoken frankly to the sisters about the hardships of pregnancy on the journey, much to Willa’s horror:
“Sometimes it’s them just you age comes through best- too old to die young, too young to die old. Providing, that is, that neither o’ you is expectin’”
“Babies?” Willa gasped in embarrassment.
“My sister and I aren’t married,” Betsy said.
“My experience,” Captain Meeker said, “is that babies don’t always know who’s married and who isn’t.”
Captain Meeker knows of what he speaks, as Betsy and Charlie almost admit the feelings that they are feeling as the train celebrates with a dance upon reaching the Continental Divide:
She felt his long fingers gently stroking her cheek and lifting her chin up. She closed her eyes and felt the hot crush of his lips against hers. A warm rush of pleasure threatened to melt her bones to tallow, and she clung to him for support.
“Don’t let go of me,” she whispered. “Ever.”
She grinned to herself. She’d kissed other boys before, but she counted Charlie’s as the first REAL kiss of her life. Her first real kiss, she thought, and already she’d become an addict. A terrible addict who was going to fall down and roll in the dirt in fits if she didn’t get another kiss soon.
Pretty hot stuff for the 1840s.
Of course, COMPLICATIONS arise when Betsy is gossiped about by a jealous romantic rival (who is then promptly swept to his death down a set of rapids at the next river crossing), keeping the young couple apart and amiably bickering all the way to Oregon.
There is also an Indian attack, followed by a mountain fever epidemic, which nearly kills Willa, who makes it through to announce that she’s pregnant, leaving Betsy wondering exactly what she is going to do when they finally arrive in Oregon. Live with her sister and her family? Set off for a city with her new BFF Kitty Taylor? Will she ever confess to Charlie how she really feels about him?
The last is resolved when the raft with her wagon on it capsizes as they make the final crossing at the Deschutes River- yup, Betsy is almost home free when she sustains a head injury and is swept downstream. Only Charlie continues to search for her, and…
They quarreled happily all the way back to camp. It was going to be a wonderful marriage, Betsy told Willa later, if she and Charlie didn’t star a war first.
Ok, not quite, author Michaels also includes a two-page “Historical Note”, which both explains that in real life “Heading west was seldom a woman’s idea” and:
By all accounts, far more Indians were killed by whites than the other way around, and the slow, steady, and brutal war waged against the Indians for their lands is one of the saddest notes of our history.
Which doesn’t really jive with the only Indians we meet in the actual story, which consists of a trio of scammers who “kidnap” Betsy and then “ransom” her back for her horse and Charlie’s shirt (hence the appearance of Charlie’s nipple) and some women who come into the camp to trade, then turn double agents, leading the men back to the camp to attack the wagon train.