In order to encourage Mormon converts to immigrate to Salt Lake City, a plan was implemented by Brigham Young himself. Outfitted with two-wheeled handcarts, the immigrants were then expected to walk, pushing the handcarts, for the 1,300-mile journey from Iowa City. Several "companies," as they were called, completed this perilous trek and successfully reached Salt Lake City. But for the Martin Company, one of the last groups to leave from Iowa City that year, the trip proved disastrous. More than a quarter of the 575 members froze or starved to death.
True Sisters tells the story of four women, brought together on the harrowing journey of the Martin Handcart Company and united by the promises of prosperity and salvation in a new land. Through the ties of female friendship and the strength born from suffering, each one tests the boundaries of her faith and learns the real meaning of survival along the way.
Though the characters in True Sisters are fictional, they are based on journals, stories, and accounts of real women who braved the horror and hardship of the handcart trek, finding faith, friendship, and even joy in the journey.
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SANDRA DALLAS is the author of eleven novels, including The Bride's House, Whiter Than Snow, Prayers for Sale, Tallgrass and New Mercies. She is a former Denver bureau chief for Business Week magazine and lives in Denver, Colorado.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
July 28, 1856
The two sisters leaned forward, their hands flat against the rear of the handcart, waiting, fidgeting, impatient. It was late in the day, and they had been ready for hours, had stood there behind the spindly cart that was piled with all their worldly goods, listening for the command or maybe the sound of the cornet that would send them on their way. Already, the horn ordered their lives, waking them at five in the morning, calling them to prayers twice a day, sounding again at ten at night for the fires and lights to be extinguished. For three weeks, their lives had been ordered by that clarion call, and the sisters thought it had grown a little tiresome. But now the young women strained their ears for the sound, hoping the notes would begin the procession.
“Will the horn start us off, Andrew? Will it, do ye think?” Ella Buck called to her husband, who stood between the two shafts, ready to pick up the crossbar. At nineteen, Ella was the elder of the two women, and taller—an inch taller and a year older than her sister, although the two looked as much alike as two roses on a bush, both plump, round-faced, with hair the color of straw at dusk, hair that curled into ringlets in the damp Iowa air.
“Och! I told ye I dinna know,” Andrew replied. It was the same answer he’d given his wife a few minutes earlier and once before that, and he sounded put out this time.
“Why do we skitter about? We are three weeks late,” Ella continued, ignoring her husband’s tone. “Why couldna we hae left at dawn?”
“I dinna know, I say. You’ve small patience. There’s a reason we haena started. Ye can count on it.”
“What reason?” Nannie Macintosh, Ella’s sister, asked.
Andrew didn’t answer, perhaps because he didn’t know, or maybe he was afraid that his own impatience would show. After all, he had awakened them before the first sounding of the cornet and insisted they eat a cold breakfast so they would be ready to go at dawn. Now, he picked up the crossbar that was connected to the two shafts of the handcart and began to examine it. There was a knot in it, and Andrew told his wife that he hoped the wood wouldn’t split before they reached Zion.
The cart was made of green wood. They were all constructed of green wood, and put together by the Saints themselves. The handcarts were to have been waiting for them when the converts arrived from Europe, but to Nannie’s disappointment, they weren’t, and the men had gone looking for seasoned lumber, only there wasn’t any. So the carpenters among them fashioned the handcarts themselves from the poor wood that was available, made them to the Prophet Brigham Young’s own instructions, to look like the carts the peddlers and dustmen pushed in the cities at home. While a few of the travelers had carts covered with canvas hoods, Andrew had been assigned an open cart with two wooden wheels, some four feet in diameter, with hoop-iron tires. The vehicle was the width of a wagon track so that it could roll along easily on the ruts of the trails. Between the wheels was a sort of wagon box or platform made of four or five planks, about three feet wide and four feet long, to hold bedding, cooking utensils, clothing, flour, and other provisions that Nannie and Ella stored there. The planks were nailed to two frame pieces that extended forward to form the shafts. Fastened to the two shafts was a crossbar. The space between the shafts accommodated two persons, but Andrew would pull the cart himself, while the women pushed. The cart, empty, weighed sixty-five pounds.
Andrew had said that the handcarts were a brilliant idea, proposed by the prophet himself, that allowed even the poorest among them to make the journey to the Great Salt Lake Valley. Andrew, Ella, and Nannie never could have paid for the trip to the Promised Land if they’d had to lay out three hundred dollars for a team and wagon. But a handcart for the three of them cost less than twenty dollars, and what’s more, the church loaned them the money for the journey, which they would pay back once they were settled in Utah and Andrew found work.
It wasn’t just the cost, however. The three emigrants knew that the carts would make the trip faster than any wagon, because the people would not have to worry about livestock—hitching up the oxen each morning, gathering feed, hunting for the animals if they wandered off. Moreover, the handcarts wouldn’t have to carry all the supplies needed to reach the valley, since resupply stations would be set up along the way. So with the other Saints, they could average fifteen miles a day across the thirteen hundred miles of prairie and mountains from Iowa City to the valley. That meant a trip of less than three months.
“But we canna walk all that way? I’ve never walked more than five miles at a time, and down a country lane outside Edinburgh at that. How can ye ask it?” Ella had inquired when she first heard about the carts.
“The exercise and the fresh air will strengthen you,” the missionary speaking to the gathering in Scotland had replied.
“What if I get taken in sickness or break my leg and hae to hirple?”
“There will be wagons for the lame and infirm as well as the elderly.”
“But I’m...” Embarrassed, she looked down at her stomach, which was still as flat as a flatiron.
“Of no consequence, sister. Other women, much further along, have crossed the prairie, some all the way to California. And as I told you, there will be the wagons for those who can’t walk.”
Ella discovered in Iowa City that there were only seven wagons, filled now with supplies and freight, for the infirm among the 650 emigrants, however. Still, Ella believed the elder who had spoken, since this group—called the Martin Company, for its leader, Edward Martin, a Mormon missionary who had served in England and Scotland—was the last of the five handcart companies to cross the prairie that year. The Willie Company had left two weeks earlier, not long after Andrew, Ella, and Nannie arrived. Ella said the shortage of wagons must mean that the elders were sure in the knowledge that few fell sick on the Overland Trail. The Lord would give them strength, a missionary promised her. As Ella stood behind the cart, waiting for the signal to move, examining a splinter that had worked its way into her hand, she thought again of walking the hundreds of miles and hoped the missionary was right.
The sisters heard shouts then, a creaking as the first carts, some lined up on the road, others spread out across the prairie, moved forward in a jumble, cries as parents called to their children, shouts of praise to the Lord, a few prayers. Ella had thought they would move out with a song, a trill of the cornet, a flash of lightning, or a boom of thunder rolling across the prairie, something to herald the momentous occasion, but there was nothing. With no ceremony at all, the first carts began to move, and then the ones behind them.
“Andrew,” Ella called.
“I can see,” he said, although he had been studying the poor piece of wood in his hand instead of watching the line of carts. Now he looked up at the procession of conveyances in front of him, his face as open and shining as the sun above them, and turned to his wife and her sister. All traces of impatience gone, he grinned and called, “Ready to roll on, are ye? Ready to roll to Zion?”
“Aye,” Ella and Nannie cried, and as Andrew strained to push the crossbar, the two women leaned hard against the back of the cart, and the awkward wheels began to move.
Ella and Nannie smiled broadly at each other, and the older girl touched her sister’s arm. “You will love it in Zion. Wait and see. Ye’ll be with God’s people. No one will jeer at us, call us dirty Mormons. We’ll be with our own.” She added, although she should not have, “Ye’ll meet someone there, a man worthy of ye.” And then she repeated, “Ye’ll love it, Nannie.”
Her sister nodded. “I will love it because ye are there, Ella.”
“Ye’ll wear your red shoon, Nannie. Before a year is out, ye’ll wear them.” Ella stumbled a little as the wheel of the cart bounced over a rock, then checked to make sure that nothing had fallen out. She looked up at the dozens of carts in front of them, the dozens behind, and caught the eye of a woman pushing a handcart with a little girl perched on the top, thinking she would remember the woman, remember the day, July 28, 1856. “We’re off,” Ella shouted above the din.
The woman didn’t smile, but she shouted back, “We’re off to the Salt Lake indeed!”
Ella looked again at her sister. “I shouldna hae said that about the shoon. If your boots wear out, ye’ll need the slippers before we reach Utah.”
Nannie shook her head, her round cheeks already red from the exertion. “They’re for my wedding. I won’t wear them until I’m married, even if I hae to cross the mountains barefoot. That’s why I bought them. And if I never marry, why then, the shoon will never be worn.”
Ella turned away, hoping her sister had not seen her eyes cloud over with pity. The shoes had been bought for Nannie’s wedding. She had been betrothed to Levi Kirkwood, a shopkeeper from London. They had set a date, and Nannie had made her wedding dress, gray silk with a sprinkling of red flowers, then lavished a week’s wages from her job as a chambermaid on the shoes, fragile red silk with kid bottoms that would not survive half a dozen wearings. “I’ll put them on for my wedding, then set them away and wear them again on our fiftieth anniversary. Then I’ll be buried in them,” she had told Ella.
And then on the day of the wedding, L...
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Book Description Center Point, 2012. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Never used!. Bookseller Inventory # P111611734118