“O My America! Six Women and Their Second Acts in a New World” by Sara Wheeler, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013


The premise is fascinating. Six women who traveled to the new United States of America from England in the 19th century—none of them connected save that each wrote a memoir of the experience. They did not stay in the safe confines of New York and New England. They went to the interior via steam and sailboat, railroad, horseback and on foot. Each was or became financially independent, mostly because of their writing, and all eventually returned to England. I was familiar with two of them: Fanny Trollope, mother of Anthony Trollope, my favorite late 19th century British novelist, and Isabella Bird, a traveling Scots woman who “wintered” in Estes Park, Colorado with William Nugent, aka Comanche Bill, a renowned mountain man.

With an Introduction and six chapters, Wheeler tells the stories of these brave women, integrating them with her personal story as she approaches middle age. She follows the trails of her heroines’ journeys, not attempting to recreate the impossible, but gathering the shared images of the mountains, rivers and plains. Wheeler is also British and had an early awakening experience when she resettled in the U.S. and learned firsthand the value of our somewhat classless hospitality.

These are wonderful stories of extreme hardship that each give prismatic insight into our undeveloped country in the 19th century. Most of it is not pretty. But the take-away is that these women came unaided, for the most part worked unaided and turned their lives around. As a reader I found Wheeler’s intersticed thoughts on her own situation intrusive. Perhaps if I was turning 50, they would hold more meaning.

Recommended for readers who seek unique insights into U.S. history.