Book Note: Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

One of the highlights of my life was the day I stood on the Oregon trail. IMG_1583 amy oregon trail sign 4x6
(I am wearing pioneer clothes because...well, you know. Pioneer trek reenactment. And people say Mormons are weird.)

 This was when I went on a pioneer trek with the youth in my church. It was a highlight because I have always loved pioneer stories, but before doing research for the trek, I had no idea of just how many people I am descended from who crossed the country on the Oregon trail. Those rare times when it seems that history and my life right now overlap are moments that are full of meaning to me; they are memorable and change my focus in ways I didn't expect. Walking on the exact same ground that my great, great, great, great grandmother also walked (as well as many other great-something grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles) felt holy to me. They became much more real to me.

But even before I knew so much about my ancestors, I was drawn to trail stories. Not so much Westerns (in the Louis L'Amour tradition) but novels about people traveling across the country in epic journeys. Come to think of it, the only Western I really love, Lonesome Dove, really is more of a epic pioneer story than anything else, even though the "pioneers" aren't a traditional family.

Under a painted skyAt any rate, when I read about Under a Painted Sky after a patron suggested we get it for the library, I wanted to read it immediately. It is the story of Samantha, who is living in St. Joe, Missouri, with her father. They moved there after her mother died, when they left New York City to start over. Half Asian, half French, Sammie seemed to fit in OK in New York, but in St. Joe she is an anomaly, viewed with suspicion. When her father is killed, she has to flee St. Joe.

Luckily, she meets Annamae, a run-away slave also trying to escape from St. Joe. Striking up a fast friendship, the two decide to travel to California together on the Oregon trail, pretending to be boys—named Andy and Sam—in order to escape suspicion. (They are both likely to show up on "wanted" posters.) A couple of days outside of Missouri, they strike up a friendship with a group of three cowboys, Cay, West, and Peety, and conspire to stick with them in order to learn the skills they need to survive on the trail.

I loved this book.

Sure—one might complain that Andy and Sam don't really make convincing boys, and it's a little bit far-fetched that they aren't immediately uncovered. But I just chose to go with the conceit because I enjoyed the story so much. It is a plot made richer by interesting characters and the addition of Andy's straightforward faith and Sam's intricate knowledge of literature, music, and Asian philosophy. (Her father insisted she be educated while they were living in New York.) They characters have all sorts of adventures, from surviving a cattle stampede to crossing rivers to saving their horses from wild mustangs.

But my favorite part of the book was Sam and Andy's friendship. If you are lucky in your life, you come across two or maybe three people with whom you immediately connect, and this is how their friendship is. It starts with a mutual need (escaping St. Joe) but grows into something much deeper and valuable. They have to learn how to trust each other and how to communicate around their cultural differences, but each girl has something the other can lean on. As I think more YA novels need strong girl friendships, I loved this.

It's also a book full of adventure, history, and (yes, or course) romance. I gobbled it down in less than two days and I've found myself falling into good memories of the story as well. It felt like it ended with the possibility of a sequel—it wrapped up well and didn't leave me hanging, but I can see the story continuing on. (In fact, I really hope it does!) It reminded me of that day I walked along the Oregon trail and of the sacrifices and hardships so many people went through to build our country. I loved it and can't wait to recommend it to other readers of historical fiction. 

Trek Photo Album: a little teaser

 finally got some of my photos from trek scrapbooked! Rather than just making a layout, I made a mini (8x8) album. Here's a teaser:

A sorensen jbs section 1

Go HERE to see more details!

I made this album for Jake. One day soon I'm going to make one for Haley and one for myself as well.

One thing that this album reminded me: big projects come together so much faster when the journaling is already written! I just had to tweak a little bit, and proofread, and then the journaling was done.

One thing that this album taught me: how to print small, double-sided booklets full of journaling without using Publisher. (As I don't have Publisher on my computer at home!) It's a little tricky and involves some cutting and pasting and some strange arranging of pages, but it can be done!

Another thing this album reminded me: I really, really loved going on trek, despite the cold.

And: despite my insecurities over being the historian, I did get some good photos.

Oh! And it also taught me: 6x8 prints are an awesome size!

Anyway. If you also went on trek, or know someone who did, you might hop over and see the rest of the album!

Trek, in Five Minutes

A few weeks ago, I was asked to speak at our stake youth conference today about my Trek experiences. Specifically, I needed to focus on how my trek experiences have changed me and what I will continue to take forward in my life with me.

The only catch? I needed to speak for about five minutes.

Five minutes is hard! Twenty minutes would be easier. It was hard to narrow down and explain everything I wanted to say into 300 seconds. On the other hand, it was easy. Having only five minutes limited the topics I could touch on; five minutes eliminated most of the touchier and more detailed ideas I had. Because much of what I learned while I was in Wyoming is intensly personal and has so much backstory to it, I'm not sure how much time I would need to truly tell everything. A few people have also asked me why I haven't blogged about it, and the answer is the same: it is hard to explain without going into my entire life's history. Also, it reveals much about me that I am not sure I want in the public space of a blog.

I very nearly focused all my five minutes on my beliefs about keeping a journal. Here is why. Before I started preparing for the trek, I felt very nearly angry at my ancestors for not keeping journals. I know it is strange, but I do have a deep curiousity about those whose lives helped create mine. I wish I knew more about them. Especially when my Grandma Elsie died, I was angry. She was a reader so I assumed that, like me, she'd also been a writer, but she wasn't. I had high hopes we'd find a journal among her possessions, but they were dashed. But, when I was first thinking about the Trek—before I even knew if I would go or not—Becky discovered the journal of our great, great, great, great uncle, Samuel Openshaw.

He had been in the Martin handcart company, along with his parents and four other siblings. His brother, Levi, was my great great great grandfather. If you're Mormon, you know exactly who the Martin handcart company was. If not, a brief recap: they were pioneers who came to Salt Lake in 1856. Because there was a shortage of wagons and oxen, and because many of them were very poor, they used handcarts instead of wagons—and pushed them themselves from Iowa City to Salt Lake City. This wasn't the first or the last group of handcart pioneers, but they were the ones who suffered the most.

They got a late start, leaving Iowa City in late July. (They should have already been to Independence Rock by July 4.) A series of negative experiences—lost cattle, broken axels, bad food—set them back, but really it was an early snowstorm that caused the tragedy. The handcart companies were stranded by Devil's Gate in Wyoming, with roughly 350 miles left before they reached Salt Lake, by that snowstorm. When all was told, 213 of them died because of starvation, cold, or exhaustion; most were buried in simple snow graves as the ground was too frozen to dig proper burial sites. By grace, they survived; the people already living in the Salt Lake valley sent rescue wagons with food and clothing and strong men to help. (Some of the survivors also perished.)

The stories of the Martin and Willey handcart companies are touchstones of our faith. They are important because they help us remember many things and because they serve as examples of faith, survival, and indominable will to continue pushing forward, no matter what. During the Trek, we walked on many of the same trails that those pioneers did. I had to overcome a handful of obstacles to get myself and my kids there, but I was determined, both for myself and for them, to experience it. The things I learned about kindness, weakness, persistence, friendship, and faith will continue to influence me. In five hours, perhaps, I could tell you all I learned. Here is what I spoke about in the five minutes I had today (roughly, of course...these are just my notes):

My great great great great grandmother, Ann Walmsley Greenhalgh Openshaw, was a member of the Martin handcart company. Before she started across the plains with her handcart, she had traveled by tallship from England, where she was converted to the church, to Boston Harbor, by train to Buffalo, New York, and then on to Iowa City, where she and her family had been hoping to purchase a wagon. Since there were no wagons, they took up handcarts.

Ann was fifty at the time and she traveled with her husband and five of her seven children. The other two were waiting in the Salt Lake Valley.

The amazing thing about this story is that, for thirty-something years, I sat and listened to sacrament meeting and general conference talks about the Martin handcart company, and for most of those years I had no clue that I was a descendent of people who survived this trial. Only when I started doing research for the Trek did I discover the journal of Samuel Openshaw, who was Ann’s son and the designated journal-keeper for the family. Discovering Samuel’s journal in the BYU archives and having access to it is one of my life’s greatest treasures.

While we were on the trek, Ann’s name was the one I wore on my wrist. I thought of her often as I walked the same paths she walked. I especially thought about her on the first morning, when I woke in a tent I was a guest in, my own having been blown down by the night's winds. I was alone in the tent and I thought I cannot get out of this tent. Leaving the warmth of my sleeping bag, having to put on a brave face for all the youth around me—not to mention the pioneer clothes—felt impossible. But I thought of Ann, how every morning for months she would have had to crawl out of her tent, out into the weather, many days without much of anything to feed her family. She gave me courage to move forward.

As we trekked, I wondered: what was she really like? What did she love in her life? What did she think about her journey across three-quarters of America? How did she feel about her children? What did she think about in the early mornings of her journey, before she got out of her tent and started preparing? Where did she find her courage?

This talk could easily have been about my testimony of keeping a journal. How I wish Ann had kept a journal so she could tell me the answers to the things I wondered about! But many of you have already heard that testimony, so I am sharing something slightly different. 

On the third day of the trek, remember the 45 minutes or so we spent waiting for our turn to do the women’s pull? The handcarts were all loaded and waiting, and I wandered off for a bit. I sat alone on the bridge that crossed the Sweetwater river and took a few pictures. The meadow was full of tiny, delicate iris, white with purple edges. The air had finally warmed a bit, the sky was blue and so was the water. There were snow-capped mountains in the distance. I sat on the bridge and thought about my ancestor, Ann, and just for a moment I was filled with her spirit. I didn’t know anymore details about her life, but what I was left with was the spirit of her courage.

So one of the ways that the Trek continues to influence me is that it gave me more courage. When I am having one of those mornings when crawling out of bed seems like the hardest thing to do in all of mortality, I think of Ann. I think of her having to crawl out of her tent and face the hardships of landscape and lack of food and exhaustion and what must have been overwhelming terror of losing any of her family. I think of her courage that I felt there at the river. And I get out of bed, or I do whatever else I need to that I am not sure I have the courage to do. Being in the same place as my ancestors and having just the smallest taste of what they experienced has given me a courage I didn’t know I had.

Trek: A Few Photos

I've been working on photoshopping the 600+ photos I took on the Trek. (And feeling grateful that I didn't take almost 2,000 like others I know!) I am a slow and hesitant photoshopper so it takes me awhile. I've just uploaded the first of the photos, those I took when we were at Independence Rock. (You'll see them when you scroll down past the "recent posts" on the left side of my blog.)  I have labeled all the photos with the names of people I know, but if you were on the Trek and know names I don't, will you please, please email me?

Because I rode in a car instead of the bus, we arrived about 45 minutes before the kids did. I grabbed the opportunity to sit in the silence near the rock, thinking about the people who had passed this way. You hear about the distances the pioneers traveled—nearly 1300 miles—but it starts to come into scope when you see all the rolling distances. Many of my own ancestors stopped in this same place. I wrote in my journal, photographed the landscape, and wondered how it really felt, making it to this enormous marker.

Later, after we'd eaten lunch, we climbed up to the top. The wind was fierce at the top. It was different than I expected; more conglomerate than smooth stone. The boys were running around, jumping over cracks, dropping their water bottles and shoes into the crevices, making me anxious. I finally just had to sit back and not nag, hoping no one got hurt. (No one did.) Somehow I managed to be one of the last of our group—not on purpose, but because the kids who left last went down a different route. I sat in the silence for a minute, thinking about a question someone else had asked me. "Why do you think those footsore and exhausted pioneers took the time and energy to climb this rock?" a friend asked as we huffed to the top.

I didn't have answer for her while we climbed, or even when the top was crowded with laughing teenagers. But in those few moments of solitude—alone save one lonely rabbit—I looked across the landscape. A few rolling hills, an enormity of prairie, a few mountain-ish peaks in the distance. High enough to watch the shadows of the clouds cast patterns on the ground. The wind tugging at my bonnet and telling its persistent secrets in my ear. I think they climbed it because it was a reprieve from the endless days of moving West, always West, the sun behind them and then glaring in their face all afternoon, the stretches of monotonous travel. Almost to me it seems like it might have felt like walking on the treadmill: always moving but never getting anywhere. Arriving at Independence Rock and climbing it (some pioneers also carved their name into the stone) must have been a relief to them, a change; an exhilaration of height and wind to keep with them.