Jane Kirkpatrick’s newest novel is an ambitious look at the life of Letitia Carson, one of the first African-American women to cross the Oregon Trail. A bestselling author of more than 25 books, Kirkpatrick couples extensive research with a passion for the inherent struggles of Carson’s story in A Light in the Wilderness. A freed slave who travels from Kentucky to Oregon with her husband in the 1840s, Carson holds tightly to the papers that prove she is no longer a slave. When her Irish immigrant cattleman husband dies, Carson’s Oregon farm and possessions are seized and sold at auction. As Kirkpatrick makes clear, a woman holds little status in 1840s Oregon; a person of color has no status at all. With the encouragement of her friend Nancy Hawkins, a doctor’s wife, Carson sues to regain her property.
“And then she knew. She knew that spooning that soup into Davey’s mouth would mean he was no longer able to tend himself and never would again. He was dying. She didn’t want to do anything that said his days were numbered, that he’d be gone. For all his warts and willful ways, she cared for him. Loved this man who was the father of her children. She didn’t mind washing his body, cleaning up his messes, trying remedy after remedy to help him through. But this…this need to feed him wound down her hope like a ticking clock.”
In a trifold storyline, Carson’s struggles are unveiled alongside those of two other women: Hawkins, whose decision to come West by wagon train exacts a higher cost than she anticipated, and Betsy, a Kalapuya Indian and the last of her Willamette Valley tribe. While Kirkpatrick tells a compelling story in A Light in the Wilderness, the novel is not for the literary-minded: Those schooled in western American literature will wince at the archetypes Kirkpatrick forwards and the formulaic assumptions that drive her plot.
[signoff predefined=”Social Media Reminder” icon=”twitter”][/signoff]