Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Answer Creek by Ashley Sweeney

Answer Creek might well have been called Ada Persisted as it portrays the perseverance of a 19-year-old woman traveling cross country in 1846. Ada Weeks was orphaned at eleven and taken in by undertaker Augustus Vik and his wife Inger in Noblesville, Indiana. When Augustus decided to head west, Ada went along joining the Donner party (yes that Donner party) in Independence, Missouri. Ada is a fictional character, but Sweeney, the author of the engaging historical chronicle Eliza Waite, accurately captures the actual sojourners who made up the infamous Donner group. This is not novel about the salacious aspects of that crew, instead, it shows the hardships the entire caravan faced when half of the travelers followed what they thought was a shorter southern route that took them through the Sierra Nevada Mountains during the winter. The joy of this novel is that it shows how Ada handled the privations and loneliness of such a trek while allowing herself to experience love.

Early in the trip, Augustus and Inger and their wagon and belongings were lost in an attempt to cross a teaming river rather than wait for the ferry. Ada had already crossed with her two mules, her clothing, and a small sack of belongings so she was alone with almost nothing.
“First, and without warning, she lost her parents, the ma and pa who tried their best to raiser her. Then, in a flash of mud and panic, she lost the Viks, the mamma and papa who took her in after the fire. She is, as Scripture says, well acquainted with grief.
Now she’s tagging along with a family of Irish Catholics like a poor postulant, although she’s not Catholic or Lutheran or Episcopalian, like many in the westering party (and she’s certainly not a Morman ­­– Captain Boggs would have seen to that). What she is, is ambiguous. She’s got a rocky relationship with God, and for good reason.
Ada shades her eyes as the sun fades below the wide, western horizon. It’s the close of another long, scorching day and she’s tuckered. She rambles into camp, stakes the mules, and pauses before going to help with supper. By now, the sky is awash with copper and salmon and gold. She inhales, holds her breath and exhales. That there can be such beauty and such sorrow in one life is perplexing.”

In the story, Ada is taken in by the Breen family, actual members of the Donner Party. The fictitious Ada cares for the Breen’s many children and assists in endless chores. Ada is smart, resourceful, and imaginative so seeing the trip through her eyes makes history burst into Technicolor. Ada notices everything and loves seeing the changing landscape. Sweeney describes her life simply:
“Ada turns her head toward the east like a wild sunflower seeking warmth. The sun has edged over the hills with long, slanted rays. It promises to be another hot day here at the end of the earth and the beginning of the earth, with a sky wide enough to hold all the constellations at once. It’s arguably the most perfect spot Ada has ever seen. And tomorrow they will pull up stakes and move on out of here, west, west, always and ever west.”

“After supper, she marks the sun’s descent until all that’s left is a golden glow above the horizon. Like clockwork, the lustrous gold quickly dissolves, sliding into apricot, into rose pink, into violet, and then, after five minutes of deep amethyst, settling into a dusky, dull grey. Twilight lasts deep into the evening. At last, all’s that left of this day are the blue-black shadows of rounded, distant bluffs under cold, flickering stars.”  

Ada and her companions end up spending 124 days in a remote, mountain cabin without heat in the middle of winter. In her cabin, they eat blankets and shoe leather and Ada always persists and her grit and intellect even under the direst of circumstances offer insight and wisdom:
“Dyin’s gonna get us all in the end, one way or t’other, she thinks. But dyin’s not the hardest part. Livin’s a  lot harder than dyin’ any day.”  Answer Creek and Ada’s persistence is just what readers need as they stay at home and lament the lack of Clorox wipes, yeast, and flour. While the novel briefly portrays the cannibalism of other members of the party, it conveys those actions without sensationalism so the emphasis on the courage of Ada and other characters takes center stage.

Summing it Up: Read Answer Creek for an accurate and evocative portrayal of life on a wagon train heading west through the mountains in 1846. Appreciate it for its well-researched chronicle of the Donner Party. Celebrate Sweeney’s recreation of the landscape, the privations, and the persistence of a bright woman on her own. Historical fiction loving book clubs will want to select Answer Creek for a spirited discussion.

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Pigeon Pie, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: May 19, 2020
What Others are Saying:
“…when readers get a glimpse of her past, her intelligence, and her courage, they will weep for her. Her story is not the Donner story; instead, Ada is every pioneer woman who accomplished more than she ever thought possible and survived.” Booklist
“Sweeney immerses the reader in the time and place, giving a brilliant picture of daily trail life, particularly from a woman’s perspective….Stronger still is Ada’s character development. Always scrappy and resourceful, Ada develops grit and determination on the trail that serves her well….Sweeney deftly gives readers a feel for the horrible choices some members of the Donner Party had to make and is careful to preserve the humanity that is too often removed from histories…” Historical Novels Review
The author is a master of vivid descriptions, dragging readers along every wretched mile of the trail, sharing every dashed hope and every dramatic confrontation, with Ada as their guide. Ada is a marvelous creation, twice orphaned and both hopeful and fearful about a new life in California, the promised land. And savor Sweeney’s prose: “Hope was what used to fill our cup, Ada thinks. Now we are down to dregs.” A vivid westward migration tale with an arresting mixture of history and fiction. ” Kirkus Reviews


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