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Book: “Where the Lost Wander” by Amy Harmon
Publishing Info: Lake Union Publishing, April 2020
Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!
Book Description: The Overland Trail, 1853: Naomi May never expected to be widowed at twenty. Eager to leave her grief behind, she sets off with her family for a life out West. On the trail, she forms an instant connection with John Lowry, a half-Pawnee man straddling two worlds and a stranger in both.
But life in a wagon train is fraught with hardship, fear, and death. Even as John and Naomi are drawn to each other, the trials of the journey and their disparate pasts work to keep them apart. John’s heritage gains them safe passage through hostile territory only to come between them as they seek to build a life together.
When a horrific tragedy strikes, decimating Naomi’s family and separating her from John, the promises they made are all they have left. Ripped apart, they can’t turn back, they can’t go on, and they can’t let go. Both will have to make terrible sacrifices to find each other, save each other, and eventually… make peace with who they are.
Review: Great authors are hard to come by. It’s especially exciting when you come across one who excels in one of your favorite genres. But the magical unicorn great author is one who seems able to write excellent novels in almost any genre! Authors like Sylvia Moreno Garcia and Naomi Novik come to mind. Amy Harmon turns out to be yet another of those authors. Everything she writes is a solid, individual piece of art, and yet she flits from genre, time period, and theme with the ease of an author who has written twenty books of the same ilk before. It’s so impressive. All of this to say, I was very excited when I saw she had written a historical novel about the Oregon Trail. There aren’t too many books out there (at least that I’ve found) that tackle this period of time, so I was excited to see what Harmon had to bring, knowing full well that she was more than up to the task of delivery something great once again!
Like others who came before them, Naomi and her family brave the dangers of the long trip out West on the promise of a new life to be found by the end. For Naomi, a young widow, this opportunity to begin again is precious to her. But like all travelers of the trail, Naomi and her family need the benefits offered by a knowledgeable guide. For this, they turn to John Lowry, a half Native American man whose familiarity with the territory is sure to help their journey run smoothly. Along the way, Naomi and John feel themselves drawn closer and closer together. But disaster and tragedy strike, and, now separated, John and Naomi must fight to return to each other.
So, beyond being excellent, I think I can also say that Harmon always writes books that will pull at the heartstrings in some way or another. As much as I’ve loved all of her books, this one included, I haven’t managed to get through any of them without tearing up. And this one had big time tears! Not to say that this is a bad thing. Indeed, it speaks to the power of Harmon’s writing that you will quickly find yourself so immersed in this world and story that the sheer power of will found in our main characters is enough to pull at your heart. Not to mention the very real dangers and tragedies they each must face in the course of this story.
Harmon doesn’t shy away from portraying the harsh realities of this time and place (she also has an excellent author’s note at the end about her own family’s history and her approach to researching and writing this story.) For his part, John clearly doesn’t fit into either of his parents’ worlds. Not that of his Native American mother with whom he only lived the first few years of his life. Nor the white settlers who continually side eye him even though he has lived and worked alongside them his entire adult life. There was no neat solution or simplistic “good” or “bad” guys. Instead, Harmon took a nuanced look at the life and experience of an individual in this role. For her part, Naomi’s life is not straightforward either. She’s a young woman (though widowhood does offer a certain sort of freedom) in a time period where she has very little agency over her life and choices. Instead, she must work within the strict options given to her, often having to make heartbreaking decisions just to survive.
The romance itself was lovely. It was a slow-burn romance, and we had plenty of time to get to know both John and Naomi individually. And then they are separated, and we have to get to know them once again when they must rise to the challenges set before them. When they come together again, it’s bittersweet and lovely. Like I said, there’s a lot of tragedy in this book, but the for its part, the romance itself is completely satisfying.
This is definitely a challenging read, so readers picking it up should be prepared to read some darker themes, both of violence against women as well as death. But all of the tragedy is balanced with beauty and a clear-eyed look at life during this time period. Fans of historical fiction, specifically the time of the Oregon Trail, should definitely check this one out!
Rating 8: Beauty and heartbreak are equally balanced in this lovely work of historical fiction.