Thursday, January 12, 2012

Book Review: ***^The Gathering of Zion

The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail is written by Wallace Stegner.  It was published in 1964 by University of Nebraska Press.  Wallace Stegner is a great story teller and writer, and the words he uses sometimes cannot be equalled.  I heard him quoted in 17 Miracles the movie.  He has a way of expressing himself that is very artistic.  However, I do not think he is a very good historian.  In the name of the story, he does not document his work, but just tells where what authors he referred to in each chapter.  It is very hard to track and verify, from a historical point of view.  Some of his history is wanting.  His telling the background of the church especially.  This is explained in his comments about bibliography and explanation that Fawn Brodie's work, "No Man Knows My History" is one of the works he deems "worthy of complete trust."  I tried to read that book, and could not get past the first few chapters, because Brodie was out for finding every lie about Joseph Smith and try to restate it is fact.  That is my opinion.  A book that relies on Fawn Brodie for any part of telling a story is lacking in my regard.  However, when he actually tells the story about the trail, and especially when he gets past an "attitude" that dominates the first part of the book, he does a better job of telling the story.  His chapters on the handcarts are classic.  He gives a description of the handcart pioneers which can bring you to tears.  I quote this in Isaac's history.

   In all its history, the American West never saw a more unlikely band of pioneers than the four hundred-odd who were camped on the bank of the Iowa River at Iowa City in early June, 1856.  They were not colorful—only improbable.  Looking for the brown and resolute and weather-seasoned among them, you would have seen instead starved cheeks, pale skins, bad teeth, thin chests, all the stigmata of unhealthy work and inadequate diet.  There were more women than men, more children under fifteen than either.  One in every ten was past fifty, the oldest a woman of seventy-eight; there were widows and widowers with six or seven children.  They looked more like the population of the poor farm on a picnic than like pioneers about to cross the plains.
   Most of them, until they were herded from the crowded immigrant ship and loaded into the cars and rushed to the end of the Rock Island Line and dumped here at the brink of the West, had never pitched a tent, slept on the ground, cooked outdoors, built a campfire.  They had not even the rudimentary skills that make frontiersmen.  But as it turned out, they had some of the stuff that makes heroes.
   Mainly Englishmen from the depressed collieries and mill towns… they were the casualties of the industrial revolution, life’s discards, to whom Mormonism had brought its irresistible double promise of a new start on earth and a guaranteed Hereafter.  They did not differ in any essential, unless perhaps in their greater poverty, from hundreds and thousand who had started for Zion before them.  But their intention was more brash—was so impudent it was almost sublime.  Propertyless, ill-equipped, untried and untrained, they were not only going to Zion, they were gong to walk there, nearly fourteen hundred miles, having their belongings on handcarts.  (Stegner , pp 221-2)

For studying the handcart pioneers, this book is a must.  Stegner has a way of writing which is very nice and so I would recommend this book.  However I would overlook some of his work with regards to background, and take it as his listening to the wrong sources, or deciding incorrectly who is the most neutral.