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Know the West

On the road, and on a date with history


The road trip is a classic American narrative of escape: Huck Finn lighting out for the territory, Jack Kerouac chasing his dreams down the blacktop. In Uncertain Pilgrims, Lenore Carroll gives us a different kind of journey, narrated by Carla Brancato, a young woman from Kansas City who is struggling to get over the death of her child. Carla is following the Santa Fe Trail, determined to exorcise her demons by immersing herself in a safely distant past.

Carla is fascinated by the memoirs of 19th-century Army wives, and at each historic site, she recalls a woman with a connection to that place. These complex characters include Susan Shelby Magoffin, who in 1846 became the first Anglo woman to travel the trail. Carla tells their stories to her new traveling companions, fellow history buff Dale and his son, Tom, who come from Independence, Mo., the aptly named starting point for the westward journey. By the end of the novel, when Carla finally tells her own story, she claims her place in this lineage of strong Western women.

Uncertain Pilgrims has its flaws. Carla is a first-person narrator, but there are awkward shifts in the novel's point of view when it leaves her to focus on Dale and Tom. Carroll should get credit, though, for taking on a big subject: how Americans relate to the past, whether it's our national history or our own flawed stories. When Carla encounters history on display behind velvet ropes, she struggles to feel the real lives represented there.

One scene sums up the not-quite-fulfilled promise of this novel. When Carla first meets Dale at Fort Leavenworth, she's gazing at an 1870s spring wagon, which carried women westward to the lonely Army posts. "I'd give anything to get inside," she says, longing for an experience that might transform her mundane Honda-driving existence. Dale says, "Go ahead," and unhooks the rope. This is what Carla wants: a chance to step into the past. It's also what readers need: a heroine who breaks the rules. But Carla hesitates, climbing into the wagon only after the museum curator gives his permission. In Uncertain Pilgrims, Carroll's realistic fictional world never opens up quite enough space for her heroine's imagination to run wild.

Uncertain Pilgrims

Lenore Carroll

219 pages, cloth: $24.95.

University of New Mexico Press, 2006.