Friday, September 18, 2015

Book Review: The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck

Could not be more in my wheelhouse! A stunt memoir! Set in the American West! Bringing to mind tales of Laura Ingalls Wilder! And it's funny with a cranky old guy as the author's companion a la Bill Bryson! I knew this book would be a hit with me from the moment I heard about it.

Rinker visits an Oregon rail museum and decides to travel the full length of the original trail (which, granted, has many spurs and shortcuts and alternates so it's hard to figure out exactly which route is the "official" one but that's also good because significant parts of it were paved over and are now interstates, so he needed some alternatives.) This isn't as insane an idea as it would be for you or I as he grew up in Amish country (although not himself Amish) and one summer when he was a kid, his father decided to take his whole family on a wagon trip, so it's not a surprise that the companion who eventually volunteers is his brother, Nick. He and Nick are like Oscar and Felix, which is good because they balance each other out well. They buy a wagon (and a Rinker-designed mini wagon trailer) and three mules and they start in Missouri.

Along the way they encounter many of the identical obstacles the original settlers did such as steep narrow roads over mountains and boulder-strewn areas, but they don't have to deal with malaria and other illnesses. They are unlikely to die along the way (which many, many settlers did. There is an entire book published that identifies every grave site along the route.) but they also don't have any help portaging over the extremely steep runs, like the original settlers would have. Along the way we are entertained by tales of many of the original pioneers who made their way west, with Mr. Buck taking great care in presenting stories of resourceful and hardy women travelers as well as men, many who often paved the way for other women to come west. He did a vast amount of research and reading of original sources, which is seamlessly woven throughout the story of his own trip. Naturally there does get to be a bit of repetitiveness to it, but not in a bad way. Instead, it echoes what it must be like to sit on a hard wooden bench and stare at sage grass and mules' behinds for entire days, weeks on end. The Buck brothers meet interesting characters along the way, and it's crazy how nice and helpful people are. Who knew that there are public corrals in nearly every small town in the West?

If you like travelogues, American history, or just hearing a good story of an adventure, this is a fun book. Well-written and entertaining, I dare you to not also learn a great deal along the way.

I checked this book out of the library.


Kay said...

Years ago, we moved from Texas to Oregon. I knew almost nothing about the Oregon Trail and I read scads of books about it. We've been back home in Texas for a long time, but this one caught my eye a while back. Hoping to listen to it at some point. Can't imagine actually making the journey though. I can hardly stand to sit in a car all day long for a trip, much less a wooden seat. Sheesh!

Christina T said...

I wanted to read this because it sounds so fascinating. I love reading about pioneer experiences during that time (mostly fiction) but I hope I will enjoy this too. Nice review!

Anne@HeadFullofBooks said...

We visited the Oregon Trail Museum in Baker City, Oregon a few years back and I was embarrassed to realize just how little I knew of the whole route and such since I grew up in Oregon and had to take Oregon state history in school.