West to a Land of Plenty
by Jim Murphy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
West to a Land of Plenty (Idaho Territory) / 0-590-73888-7
I was initially disappointed to see that this Dear America book would cover only the travel to Idaho, not the actual settlement once the journey was over. Recognizing that the long trip could potentially be boring for the reader, the author decided to focus largely on the family dynamics. This is a somewhat mixed bag, but the sibling rivalry between the initial narrator and her little sister (who also writes in the journal later, at regular intervals!) is quite poignant as the two girls learn to love each other over their long journey.
The eldest narrator matures dramatically throughout the novel, stepping up to the challenge of taking care of her family in the harshest circumstances. And, like all Dear America novels, a love interest is provided - but to my delight and surprise, the narrator does not marry her young love! In the Epilogue, it is noted that she turns him down for marriage, deciding that they are not a good match, and instead marries another some years later, in her late thirties. It may be a small thing, but I appreciate a Dear America novel that breaks the mold and doesn't insist that all childhood loves must be married, nor that marriage after thirty is an impossibility.
There are some things to watch for here that may not be appropriate for small children. The biggest issue is that the youngest narrator dies mid-journey, from a fever. To my knowledge, this is the only Dear America novel where a narrator dies, and it is fairly distressing. More subtly, the narrator's family presents some distasteful character traits which may or may not be somewhat racist (the family members are Italian immigrants). The matriarch of the family is stupid and shrewish and hounds her granddaughters for much of the first half of the novel. The father is spineless and foolish, and is willing to throw his life away after the foolish dreams of his older brother, despite the occasional realization that his brother is an arrogant idiot. The father does not listen to the good sense of his wife when considering these ventures, and the wife does not press the issue, for fear of being a 'bad' woman. And although they have experienced racism first-hand, they are willing to think the worst of the other immigrants, for being the 'wrong' race or religion.
Since the Dear America books are not written by the same authors, it is difficult to say if this family characterization is meant to be realistically flawed or potentially racist, so I'd just say to use your best judgment when discussing this book with your children.
~ Ana Mardoll
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