ACROSS THE PLAINS: Sarah Royce’s Western Narrative

Sarah Royce
edited by Jennifer Dawes Adkison
The University of Arizona Press ($19.95)

by Emy Farley

In April of 1854, Sarah Royce and her family left Iowa in a covered wagon bound for California, the land of opportunity. Along the way, Royce kept a journal that would, thirty years later, serve as the basis for a memoir entitled Across the Plains. Now, more than 150 years after Sarah Royce first set out as a pioneer, her story is finally being told in full, faithfully rendered with careful and attentive editing by Jennifer Dawes Adkison.

Across the Plains was originally published with several sections of the manuscript omitted or reorganized. This editorializing led to a misrepresentation of Royce and of the significance of her memoir; further, it marginalized the importance of the religious faith Royce credited with sustaining her on her journey. Adkison’s edition keeps the memoir intact, allowing Royce to tell her story in the way she intended. The ample introduction provides readers with a vibrant picture of the author and the necessary historical framework to make the memoir truly come alive.

Royce’s journey across the plains is fascinating and surreal. Several scenes are such strokes of luck they sound almost providential: an Indian attack that threatens but never materializes; a blacksmith who comes along at just the right time; and U.S. government rangers with spare mules for mountaineering. As is often the case with historical memoirs, the modern reader must continually remind herself that these unimaginable incidents actually happened.

Once the Royces reach California, however, the memoir changes tone. When the party is safely in the mining camps, Sarah fixes her gaze on the social workings of her new environment, particularly those associated with class standings and religious associations. In this half of the book, she devotes as much space to discussing the way western women force their way up the social ladder or gushing over the virtues of her newfound congregation as she spent worrying over starvation or Indian attack in the earlier trek across the plains. It is at this point that the reader becomes aware of Royce’s intent to make history take note that the lawless, rough Western archetype does not fit every mold. Royce wants her expert testimony to reflect that there was another, orderly element to early California society—one based on law and faith and common decency.

Sarah Royce has no shortage of company in the pioneer memoir, but the clarity of imagery and the level of detail with which she recounts her experiences, as well as her constructed, authoritative voice, sets her memoir apart. Adkison’s clear analysis of her subject and her focused research also aid in bringing Across the Plains back to life. A brief but rewarding read, it is sure to transport anyone on an astounding journey along the wagon tracks of our nation’s grand history.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010