So I bought this book on recommendation from some of the girls at thelesbianreview.com who recognise a good tale when they see one. And as I’m a sucker for historical fiction, I figured that this was a story which was going to push all the right buttons – and it didn’t disappoint.
Set in mid-nineteenth century America, Backwards to Oregon tells the story of Nora – a prostitute – and Luke – a former soldier and survivor of the Mexican war . Luke offers Nora and her three-year-old daughter Amy the chance of a better life. In marrying him, she can put her past behind her and pose as his wife as he joins a group of pioneers travelling to Oregon. But there is a catch, which we as readers know right from the beginning – Luke is in fact a woman, who’s managed to successfully keep her identity a secret. And to reveal who she really is would be to invoke disaster.
As the plot unfolds, that is just one of the tensions which makes this story such a fascinating one. How will Nora – who is obviously falling in love with Luke – cope when she finds out what Luke has been hiding? Both characters emerge as strong, beautiful women in their own ways, and you end up with the feeling that both really deserve each other. Luke, having disguised herself for so many years is forced to rediscover herself as a woman, while Nora shakes off her past to take on the role of pioneer wife: resilient, determined and brave enough to do anything to protect those she loves.
The narrative also carries the reader along the journey west with its attendant risks of illness, dangerous river crossings and mountain passes, and with the sheer hardship of everyday life. What I liked in this respect is that, even though the author has evidently put in the hours when it came to research for her book, historical detail is integrated smoothly into the narrative. As a result, pioneer life is never romanticised, but is convincingly realised.
There were a few places where I found the prose a bit clunky. There were also one or two etymological slips – I’m not entirely sure that mid-nineteenth century Americans used terms like ‘gender’, and Luke’s prescience is a bit overstated at times. She, for example, is blessed with insight into the causes of cholera which eludes her peers. But these were minor slippages and didn’t detract from the story itself which is compelling, well paced and sucks you into a world which was in some ways far more complex, dangerous and beautiful than our own.