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One More River to Cross
October 4, 2019 @ 6:00 pm - 7:00 pm
Bend Bulletin Review:
The Stephens-Murphy-Townsend wagon train with 50 men, women and children became stranded in the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1844, two years before the infamous Donner Party became trapped by early snowfall.
The former incident was largely forgotten until New York Times bestselling novelist Jane Kirkpatrick stumbled across the story and decided to make it the focus of her latest novel, “One More River to Cross.”
The seeds for Kirkpatrick’s latest novel were planted when she was researching her 2014 story, “A Light in the Wilderness.” In a reference book, Kirkpatrick noticed an obscure footnote about a group of pioneers heading for California who passed a cabin in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which was described as the site where “eight women and James Miller had wintered in 1844-’45.”
“I knew that was in the very earliest days of travelers trying to take that route West and it was also prior to the ill-fated journey of the Donner party, so I wondered who these people were and why on earth they would have spent a winter there at that time,” Kirkpatrick said. “I also thought it was typical that only a man was mentioned by name.”
Although she was intrigued by the mysterious reference, Kirkpatrick was busy with other projects and more interested in stories set in Oregon. But a year or two later when researching her 2016 novel, “This Road We Traveled,” Kirkpatrick found another mention of the Stephens-Murphy-Townsend party and felt compelled to find out more about the unnamed women.
She learned the Stephens-Murphy-Townsend party was a group comprised mostly of Irish Catholics seeking religious, economic and political freedom in California. In 1844, they were the second group to attempt taking covered wagons along that route through the Sierra Nevadas. A previous group attempted the journey in 1841 but did not make it through. By October, the Stephens-Murphy-Townsend company reached the area near what is now known as Lake Tahoe, before heavy snow stopped the wagons in their tracks. Trapped in the wilderness, the travelers were forced to make a series of life or death decisions during a winter that brought an estimated 8 feet of snow, with no way of knowing if or when rescue would come.
They endured five months of uncertainty, deprivation and near starvation, and in some cases performed almost superhuman feats of strength and endurance. But unlike the Donner party where only 48 of the 87 original members survived, all 50 members of the Stephens-Murphy-Townsend party lived. They even added to their number, as two babies were born during the ordeal.
All Kirkpatrick’s writing includes an underlying message of optimism that many fans describe as inspirational. She hopes “One More River to Cross” helps readers look at their own difficult experiences and realize what they’ve learned and gained from them.
“All the people I write about are heroes because they faced challenges but got clear about what they wanted from life and what they needed to do,” said Kirkpatrick. “They acted on it and survived.”
All the characters in this story were real people, but because so little was known about them, Kirkpatrick had to create their personas and fill in the details about the incredible physical and emotional struggles they faced. She focuses significantly on four of the women in the group: young Mary Sullivan, newlywed Sarah Montgomery, widow Ellen Murphy and Ellen’s pregnant sister-in-law Maolisa Murphy.
“There was nothing written about the women at all, except when they gave birth along the way,” Kirkpatrick said. “I call a lot of these women I write about ‘reflected women’ because they reflect what the men in their lives were doing and then the men occasionally reflect back about them, but we often have very little or nothing directly written about them at all.”
While Kirkpatrick’s writing is full of accurate historical details and factual information about people, places and events, she jokingly calls her style of historical fiction a form of cheating, compared to the work of a scholarly historian or biographer.
“I’m really able to create their characters,” Kirkpatrick said. “But you still can’t go too far from fact. I want to be as true to these characters as possible based on what we do know.”
Kirkpatrick’s working title for this novel was “Wintering Women.” But when fans thought that title suggested the book was about female mountain climbers or menopause, Kirkpatrick knew she had to find something new. Her editorial team came up with “One More River to Cross,” which the author thinks is perfect.
“To survive, these people had to cross icy, flooded rivers. But the metaphor of the title is that there are always more rivers, always more challenges,” Kirkpatrick said. “The Greek word for character comes from a word that means ‘to chisel’ and I like to say it’s what’s left after we’ve been gouged out that is our character. We think we’d like everything in our lives to go smoothly, but in fact it is our trials and the challenges in our lives that make us who we are.”