Historical fiction is a popular genre, and one that it is extremely difficult to do well. It's the "historical" part that can be tricky. Historians can attest to the fact that imagining the activities of people in the past is far different from trying to accurately represent their experiences.
Successful historical fiction utilizes the same sources as the historian, and focuses on the details of known facts. Authors seem to know their characters inherently, having studied them so much. There have been some fine examples of the form in recent years: James Houston's Snow Mountain Passage takes the reader inside the ordeal of the Donner Party through the story of the Reed family. Lisa Michael's Grand Ambition traces the path of Glen and Bessie Hyde's 1928 attempt to navigate the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. These works immerse the reader in their stories and effectively transport their audience back in time. Certainly that is the point of historical fiction.
The primary source of Mary Barmeyer O'Brien's new book, Outlasting the Trail (Two Dot, 2005), are the letters and journal of Mary Powers, a doctor's wife from Wisconsin who traveled the Overland trail by covered wagon to California in 1856. O'Brien has fictionalized Powers' account of the journey with her husband and children. To be sure, their adventures were trying: The decision to move West belonged only to the father of the family, and the wife went along out of a sense of duty and promises of "an all-summer picnic." The reality of the journey was quite different: In Mary Powers' case, it was further complicated by her husband's apparent severe depression and his abandonment of even the simplest tasks. The survival of the family became the responsibility of Mary.
Mary Powers' story is surely one of courage and it touches on the ideals of womanhood that constrained women in the 19th century. While the struggle between the expectations and situational necessity are central to Mary's letters, in O'Brien's book, they fall prey to that beast of historical fiction: the imposition of our contemporary understanding onto people of the past.
O'Brien writes chapters from the points of view of five of the characters, but the reader will be hard pressed to find a difference in voice from male to female, adult to child. Even the fictionalized re-writes of Mary's letters fail to capture the fascinating tale of the protagonist.
Without the attention to detail that makes historical fiction compelling, the book becomes a litany of complaints-one river crossing flows into the next and the flour is always nearly gone. The arduous trek across the country fails to come to life. Readers would do well to read Mary Powers' own account of her journey, A Woman's Overland Journal to California. Sometimes the original telling suffices.