What is an unarmed, unmarried, and flat broke woman to do when she’s abandoned along a wagon trail? Alan Henry’s Wagon Train Woman (Gold Medal, 1953) starts with a promising premise, but it doesn’t take long for the book to run out of steam.
Bethenia Saunders was on her way to California with her lover when he came down with cholera. Their wagon train abandoned the couple and continued westward without them. Along comes Eban Clark, another would-be prospector who brings Beth back to his group of travelers. Eban and his band are torn: some want to kick her out, while others (Eban included) begin fighting amongst themselves over possession of her. As the group threatens to break apart, their dreams of striking rich in California seem further away than ever.
The narrative of Wagon Train Woman feels stunted. Most of the plot revolves around a few characters arguing about what to do with Beth, rather than doing anything about it. And when she finally takes initiative and runs away, they bring her back and start arguing all over again. It’s boring, repetitive, and strangely confusing to read. Even though there are only a few characters, it is hard to keep track of who is doing what and why.
Devoid of the physical details that make the journey believable, and it’s easy to forget that these are gold prospectors crossing a desert. Geographically, it’s not only non-descript, but seemingly invisible—it’s hard to ever picture exactly where any of the story is going on. There’s not much action, and the one-dimensional characters lack enough credibility to be either likable or sympathetic.
Wagon Train Woman also seems to miss one of the profound themes of The Western. A great irony of The Western is that despite the freedom and opportunity promised by the open landscape, the characters in the stories often have no choice when it comes to their actions. Moral conviction, past experience, and fight-or-flight scenarios dictate the Western protagonist’s decisions. Ultimately, it is futile to figure out what drives the characters in Wagon Train Woman: they all lack either credible or logical motivation.
All in all, Wagon Train Woman is a rather dull read. It’s unfortunate, too, because I like the idea of exploring the challenges that face a female character alone on the Western frontier, and the different options she was left with. The author doesn’t seem to know what to do with this premise, however, and reverts to focusing on the male protagonists who treat her like property. Once in a while she speaks up and says that she’ll make up her own mind about what to do – only she never does. It also seems that neither did Alan Henry.
Looking on the positive side, there were a few good lines:
“A man was left with a fury around him and a fury in himself, drawn to a woman like Beth whose kind already scarred him.”
“Beth’s fists were small but her knuckles were cruel and sharp, tearing across Eban’s cheek. Then abruptly she drew away, leaving Eban with a searing memory of the heat that was in her.”
“Always a man ran, and it seemed whatever direction he took, he wound up in the same place, or worse. He ran hardest when he was never as sure that only fool’s legs carried him.”