Leanne W. Smith’s debut historical novel, Leaving Independence, opens with a mystery. Abigail Baldwin, the novel’s protagonist, is accustomed to suffering. During the Civil War, her brother died fighting for the Confederacy, and her husband died fighting for the Union. Or so she thinks. Seeking the survivor benefits that will allow her family to keep their home, she learns that her husband is not in fact dead—he’s moved out West and he has no interest in returning to Tennessee.
Abigail decides to seek out the truth behind this bizarre behavior from someone she thought she knew as well as it’s possible to know another human being. So she and her four children head to Independence, Missouri, the starting place for many who are hoping to make a better life for themselves out West, and join a wagon train. Abigail expects difficulties along the way and tries to prepare herself to meet a husband so changed by war that he has deserted his family. What she doesn’t expect is to find is new love, especially not in the form of a cowboy who has joined the wagon train as a guide.
Leaving Independence is a love story between two mismatched and star-crossed lovers, but romance is only one part of this novel. Along the way, Smith aptly documents what life was like for the nineteenth-century families who traveled the Oregon Trail. It was not an easy trip. Few had experience in crossing such hostile territory at all, much less with pregnant women and children in tow.
In popular imagination, the most serious danger to settlers heading west was Native Americans trying to protect their lands from invasion. In fact, danger most often came from within the wagon train itself—from illness, accidents, or snake bites. Abigail’s group loses one member during an accident at a river crossing: “They had passed several graves on the journey and now left one of their own. After this, Abigail began to read all the markers more closely and wondered at the lives behind the words. Skeletal remains of many animals also lined the trails, picked clean by wolves and vultures, the bones bleached white by the merciless sun.”
Smith also illustrates the hardships for women as they try to do all their normal household chores in wagons and on the ground. But for Abigail there are also compensations—a breathtaking landscape, as well as the deep bonds that are forged during shared difficulty: “Back in Independence, she had thought to travel with this group of people only for the sake of safety and convenience. She’d seen this train as a vehicle to take her back to her husband,” Smith writes. “It had not occurred to her then that she would grow to love the people on this train. But she had.” On the Oregon Trail, Smith suggests, strangers had no choice but to become a community, if only because supporting and protecting each other was the only way to survive the journey.
Faye Jones, dean of learning resources at Nashville State Community College, writes the Jolly Librarian blog for the college’s Mayfield Library. She earned her doctorate in nineteenth-century literature at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.