In a novel based on true events, New York Times bestselling author Sandra Dallas delivers the story of four women---seeking the promise of salvation and prosperity in a new land---who come together on a harrowing journey.
In 1856, Mormon converts, encouraged by Brigham Young himself, and outfitted with two-wheeled handcarts, set out on foot from Iowa City to Salt Lake City, the promised land. The Martin Handcart Company, a ragtag group of weary families headed for Zion, is the last to leave on this 1,300-mile journey. Three companies that left earlier in the year have completed their trek successfully, but for the Martin Company the trip proves disastrous. True Sisters tells the story of four women from the British Isles traveling in this group. Four women whose lives will become inextricably linked as they endure unimaginable hardships, each one testing the boundaries of her faith and learning the true meaning of survival and friendship along the way.
There's Nannie, who is traveling with her sister and brother-in-law after being abandoned on her wedding day.
There's Louisa, who's married to an overbearing church leader who she believes speaks for God.
There's Jessie, who's traveling with her brothers, each one of them dreaming of the farm they will have in Zion.
And finally, there's Anne, who hasn't converted to Mormonism but who has no choice but to follow her husband since he has sold everything to make the trek to Utah.
Sandra Dallas has once again written a moving portrait of women surviving the unimaginable through the ties of female friendship. Her rich storytelling will leave you breathless as you take this trip with Nannie, Louisa, Jessie, and Anne. This is Sandra Dallas at her absolute best.
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St. Martin's Press
April 24, 2012
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Excerpt from True Sisters by Sandra Dallas
The two sisters leaned forward, their hands flat against the rear of the handcart, waiting, fidgeting, impatient. It was late in the day, and they had been ready for hours, had stood there behind the spindly cart that was piled with all their worldly goods, listening for the command or maybe the sound of the cornet that would send them on their way. Already, the horn ordered their lives, waking them at five in the morning, calling them to prayers twice a day, sounding again at ten at night for the fires and lights to be extinguished. For three weeks, their lives had been ordered by that clarion call, and the sisters thought it had grown a little tiresome. But now the young women strained their ears for the sound, hoping the notes would begin the procession.
"Will the horn start us off, Andrew? Will it, do ye think?" Ella Buck called to her husband, who stood between the two shafts, ready to pick up the crossbar. At nineteen, Ella was the elder of the two women, and taller--an inch taller and a year older than her sister, although the two looked as much alike as two roses on a bush, both plump, round-faced, with hair the color of straw at dusk, hair that curled into ringlets in the damp Iowa air.
"Och! I told ye I dinna know," Andrew replied. It was the same answer he'd given his wife a few minutes earlier and once before that, and he sounded put out this time.
"Why do we skitter about? We are three weeks late," Ella continued, ignoring her husband's tone. "Why couldna we hae left at dawn?"
"I dinna know, I say. You've small patience. There's a reason we haena started. Ye can count on it."
"What reason?" Nannie Macintosh, Ella's sister, asked.
Andrew didn't answer, perhaps because he didn't know, or maybe he was afraid that his own impatience would show. After all, he had awakened them before the first sounding of the cornet and insisted they eat a cold breakfast so they would be ready to go at dawn. Now, he picked up the crossbar that was connected to the two shafts of the handcart and began to examine it. There was a knot in it, and Andrew told his wife that he hoped the wood wouldn't split before they reached Zion.
The cart was made of green wood. They were all constructed of green wood, and put together by the Saints themselves. The handcarts were to have been waiting for them when the converts arrived from Europe, but to Nannie's disappointment, they weren't, and the men had gone looking for seasoned lumber, only there wasn't any. So the carpenters among them fashioned the handcarts themselves from the poor wood that was available, made them to the Prophet Brigham Young's own instructions, to look like the carts the peddlers and dustmen pushed in the cities at home. While a few of the travelers had carts covered with canvas hoods, Andrew had been assigned an open cart with two wooden wheels, some four feet in diameter, with hoop-iron tires. The vehicle was the width of a wagon track so that it could roll along easily on the ruts of the trails. Between the wheels was a sort of wagon box or platform made of four or five planks, about three feet wide and four feet long, to hold bedding, cooking utensils, clothing, flour, and other provisions that Nannie and Ella stored there. The planks were nailed to two frame pieces that extended forward to form the shafts. Fastened to the two shafts was a crossbar. The space between the shafts accommodated two persons, but Andrew would pull the cart himself, while the women pushed. The cart, empty, weighed sixty-five pounds.
Andrew had said that the handcarts were a brilliant idea, proposed by the prophet himself, that allowed even the poorest among them to make the journey to the Great Salt Lake Valley. Andrew, Ella, and Nannie never could have paid for the trip to the Promised Land if they'd had to lay out three hundred dollars for a team and wagon. But a handcart for the three of them cost less than twenty dollars, and what's more, the church loaned them the money for the journey, which they would pay back once they were settled in Utah and Andrew found work.
It wasn't just the cost, however. The three emigrants knew that the carts would make the trip faster than any wagon, because the people would not have to worry about livestock--hitching up the oxen each morning, gathering feed, hunting for the animals if they wandered off. Moreover, the handcarts wouldn't have to carry all the supplies needed to reach the valley, since resupply stations would be set up along the way. So with the other Saints, they could average fifteen miles a day across the thirteen hundred miles of prairie and mountains from Iowa City to the valley. That meant a trip of less than three months.
"But we canna walk all that way? I've never walked more than five miles at a time, and down a country lane outside Edinburgh at that. How can ye ask it?" Ella had inquired when she first heard about the carts.
"The exercise and the fresh air will strengthen you," the missionary speaking to the gathering in Scotland had replied.
"What if I get taken in sickness or break my leg and hae to hirple?"
"There will be wagons for the lame and infirm as well as the elderly."
"But I'm..." Embarrassed, she looked down at her stomach, which was still as flat as a flatiron.
"Of no consequence, sister. Other women, much further along, have crossed the prairie, some all the way to California. And as I told you, there will be the wagons for those who can't walk."
Ella discovered in Iowa City that there were only seven wagons, filled now with supplies and freight, for the infirm among the 650 emigrants, however. Still, Ella believed the elder who had spoken, since this group--called the Martin Company, for its leader, Edward Martin, a Mormon missionary who had served in England and Scotland--was the last of the five handcart companies to cross the prairie that year. The Willie Company had left two weeks earlier, not long after Andrew, Ella, and Nannie arrived. Ella said the shortage of wagons must mean that the elders were sure in the knowledge that few fell sick on the Overland Trail. The Lord would give them strength, a missionary promised her. As Ella stood behind the cart, waiting for the signal to move, examining a splinter that had worked its way into her hand, she thought again of walking the hundreds of miles and hoped the missionary was right.
The sisters heard shouts then, a creaking as the first carts, some lined up on the road, others spread out across the prairie, moved forward in a jumble, cries as parents called to their children, shouts of praise to the Lord, a few prayers. Ella had thought they would move out with a song, a trill of the cornet, a flash of lightning, or a boom of thunder rolling across the prairie, something to herald the momentous occasion, but there was nothing. With no ceremony at all, the first carts began to move, and then the ones behind them.
"Andrew," Ella called.
"I can see," he said, although he had been studying the poor piece of wood in his hand instead of watching the line of carts. Now he looked up at the procession of conveyances in front of him, his face as open and shining as the sun above them, and turned to his wife and her sister. All traces of impatience gone, he grinned and called, "Ready to roll on, are ye? Ready to roll to Zion?"
"Aye," Ella and Nannie cried, and as Andrew strained to push the crossbar, the two women leaned hard against the back of the cart, and the awkward wheels began to move.
Ella and Nannie smiled broadly at each other, and the older girl touched her sister's arm. "You will love it in Zion. Wait and see. Ye'll be with God's people. No one will jeer at us, call us dirty Mormons. We'll be with our own." She added, although she should not have, "Ye'll meet someone there, a man worthy of ye." And then she repeated, "Ye'll love it, Nannie."
Her sister nodded. "I will love it because ye are there, Ella."
"Ye'll wear your red shoon, Nannie. Before a year is out, ye'll wear them." Ella stumbled a little as the wheel of the cart bounced over a rock, then checked to make sure that nothing had fallen out. She looked up at the dozens of carts in front of them, the dozens behind, and caught the eye of a woman pushing a handcart with a little girl perched on the top, thinking she would remember the woman, remember the day, July 28, 1856. "We're off," Ella shouted above the din.
The woman didn't smile, but she shouted back, "We're off to the Salt Lake indeed!"
Ella looked again at her sister. "I shouldna hae said that about the shoon. If your boots wear out, ye'll need the slippers before we reach Utah."
Nannie shook her head, her round cheeks already red from the exertion. "They're for my wedding. I won't wear them until I'm married, even if I hae to cross the mountains barefoot. That's why I bought them. And if I never marry, why then, the shoon will never be worn."
Ella turned away, hoping her sister had not seen her eyes cloud over with pity. The shoes had been bought for Nannie's wedding. She had been betrothed to Levi Kirkwood, a shopkeeper from London. They had set a date, and Nannie had made her wedding dress, gray silk with a sprinkling of red flowers, then lavished a week's wages from her job as a chambermaid on the shoes, fragile red silk with kid bottoms that would not survive half a dozen wearings. "I'll put them on for my wedding, then set them away and wear them again on our fiftieth anniversary. Then I'll be buried in them," she had told Ella.
And then on the day of the wedding, Levi sent word that he had changed his mind, that he cared for another. Nannie sold the dress. "What does a chambermaid need with a silk dress?" she asked. But she had saved the shoes, the wedding shoes. And she'd brought them with her to America. "I know I'm a bampot to bring them, what with the little we're allowed to take. But they don't weigh much, and they take up such a small space in the cart. Why, I could even carry them in my pocket or hang them around my neck," Nannie explained to Ella.
She did not know until she gathered with the other Saints in Iowa City that Levi Kirkwood and his bride, Patricia, had taken an earlier ship, had waited in Iowa to join the last emigrant train, and now they were part of the procession of carts that made up the Martin Company. Filled with anger and humiliation, Nannie hid her face in her apron when she first saw him in the camp and asked Ella, "Did ye know? I would not hae come." Ella shook her head, but Andrew turned away, and Nannie saw him look over at Levi, and she realized that Andrew had known. "How could ye?" she asked him, and Andrew replied that it was Levi's doing, not his.
"Do ye think he shouldna gather to Zion just because he--ye turned him down?" Andrew asked, repeating the bit of fiction the family had spread to save face for Nannie. "Zion is for the sinners amongst us, too."
"But I would hae waited until next year rather than cross with him."
"And done what, pushed a cart by yourself?" Andrew asked, and Nannie knew he was right. Although others had made the journey alone, she did not believe she could do it.
"Besides," Andrew added with gentleness, "Ella needs ye." And Nannie knew he was right about that, too.
When Andrew questioned the wisdom of putting the shoes into the cart while so many other things had had to be abandoned, Ella told him to hush. "We're allowed seventeen pounds each, and if Nannie wants the shoon in her poundage instead of tossed in the midden, who are we to say nay?"
The rigid weight limit was a surprise. The emigrants had known at the outset that there would be little room in the carts for their belongings and had been told to pack only what was necessary. Then when they arrived, they were informed that they could take even less than they had expected, just seventeen pounds for each adult, less for children. And the possessions would be weighed to make sure no one cheated. It was for their own good, the people were told. Once the journey was under way, they would be glad for every pound they didn't have to push across the prairie.
So the pioneers went through their things, casting aside precious items, selling them to the local people in Iowa City at a fraction of their worth or abandoning them at the campground. The sisters sold their small trunk for fifty cents, a bed quilt for a dime, their extra bonnets for a nickel. One of the missionaries accompanying the group paid Ella a quarter for her mirror, which was framed in gold. Then he put it into the supply wagon for the trip to the valley, and Ella brooded that the weight limit didn't apply to the church leaders. The mirror had been her prized possession, but she had no need to view herself each day after tramping across the prairie.
The sisters pared down their wardrobes, so that each had just three dresses, two for the journey and the third to wear for the handcart entrance into Great Salt Lake City, where they expected to be met by a brass band.
There was not much demand in Iowa City for the Saints' belongings, however, so what Ella and Nannie and the others couldn't sell was abandoned on the ground--clothing, china plates and copper pots, volumes of Pilgrim's Progress and Robinson Crusoe, an ear trumpet, a china dog, a warming pan, a birdcage whose tiny door was open, as if the bird had been allowed to fly off; embroidered pillow slips and striped ticks that were already ripped open, their feathers blowing in the breeze. They might have burned the discarded treasure that the Gentiles of Iowa City were too parsimonious to purchase, but waste was not the Saints' way, and so they left their things in great piles to be scavenged.
* * *
Nannie glanced over at her sister, who was straining as they pushed the cart up a hill. Ella's face was red and wet from the exertion, and the back of her dress was stained with perspiration. The dress stretched across Ella's stomach, gently rounded now, and Nannie thought her sister's exhaustion was due more to pregnancy than from pushing the cart. She hoped the baby would not come before they reached Utah. "I'll push by myself awhile," Nannie told her sister. "Ye walk alongside."
"I'll do my part."
"Of course ye will. But there's no reason for both of us to push just now. We'll take turns. Ye walk for a time. Then we'll trade places." She glanced at her brother-in-law, his hands against the crossbar, propelling the cart, and whispered to Ella, "And if Andrew disna notice, we can both stop pushing." The sisters laughed.
Ella took her hands off the cart, examining a blister that had formed already on one palm. "When we stop tonight, I'll get out my gloves. My hands will be ruined by the time we reach the valley. And my clothes," she added, glancing down at the dark cotton of her dress. The sisters had hemmed their skirts to above their boots to keep them from dragging on the ground, but already, the hems were dirty. "I'll rest for only a minute. I'll catch up with ye." Ella sat down on the limb of a fallen tree.
Nannie centered herself in the back of the cart. The vehicle really was not difficult to push, and it rode easily along the rutted road. Other carts passed them, traveling alongside on the prairie grass, but Andrew kept to the trail, where the going was easier. He glanced back at Nannie and said over his shoulder, "That was good of you. The baby moves. Ella disna sleep well."
"She will tonight."
He turned back to the trail, and Nannie studied his narrow back and lean arms, his body as lanky as a coatrack. He had once been a strong lad, but years of working in a mill had weakened him, and she worried about his lungs. Still, she knew her sister's heart fluttered at the sight of him, for Andrew was blond and blue-eyed, a fine catch for any girl. He worked hard, too. She had to give him that, although he was a little too pompous, a little too self-important, too ready to make clear that he was the head of his household and would make the decisions. Well, what newly married husband wasn't? Ella asked when Nannie mentioned that Andrew seemed full of himself. Ella was right, of course, and after that, Nannie found Andrew's attitude more amusing than annoying. He was like a boy playacting his role as master of his home. Besides, Andrew loved her sister. He loved her so much that he'd promised Ella before they married that he would never take another wife.
The three of them knew about polygamy, had known about it before they agreed to go to Utah Territory. In 1853, not long after they joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they learned that Joseph Smith had revealed to his people that the Lord had told Mormon men to take second and third wives. Some might have even more. The Lord Himself commanded it of His people, the prophet had said. After all, the patriarchs of old had been polygamous.
Ella and Nannie had been stunned and then disgusted when the news arrived in Scotland, had even considered leaving the church. "The Lord's way is never easy," one of the missionaries said after the young women shared their misgivings. "The Lord does not test us with a life of ease." So many more women than men had joined the church, and it was unfair to deny them husbands, he continued, and without a husband, Ella and Nannie were told, a woman could not rise to the highest celestial kingdom. Besides, the missionary confided, only a select few of the Saints--mainly church leaders--practiced plural marriage, and most of them did it out of compassion, taking up women who were old and feeble. But Ella was not reassured, and when Andrew asked her to marry him, she hesitated, telling him she feared he might someday enter into celestial marriage.
Andrew was shocked--and then offended. The idea sickened him, too, he said. The two of them had known each other since they were children living in a small town not far from Edinburgh, and he had never imagined taking anyone else for a first wife, let alone a second. He told her, "We can be good Saints without living the principle." The principle, that was what it was called. "Look at the missionaries. They have only a single wife at home," he added. Still, Ella was fearful and had insisted they wait. Even on the day of the wedding, she was troubled, and so Andrew wrote in their Bible, "My wife is Ella Macintosh. I will take no other."
Nannie witnessed the declaration, and she knew that Andrew meant what he wrote, and that whatever his faults, he was a man to honor his promise.
He had been the first among them to join the Saints. Like the other villagers, the Macintoshes and the Bucks had attended the Presbyterian church, with its solemn worship and threats of a dour hereafter for the wicked, which included almost everyone. Then two Latter-day Saints missionaries called on Andrew and told him about the new American religion. The church's founder, the prophet Joseph Smith, had been singled out by the Lord to restore his gospel. In 1823, the angel Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith, a poor farm boy in New York, telling him about the Book of Mormon, the story of an ancient people in America. Jesus had appeared to these believers nearly two thousand years before, but they had descended into wickedness and been destroyed. Four years after he saw the angel, young Smith was shown where the ancient record was hidden. He translated it and had it published in the spring of 1830.
Andrew learned that the prophet Joseph Smith had been martyred. Persecuted by men who coveted the Mormons' land and belongings, Smith's people had journeyed to Missouri and Illinois, pursued by mobocrats, as the Mormons called them, who beat them and burned their houses and farms. Eventually, these vengeful men murdered Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum. The Mormons fled once again, under the leadership of Brigham Young.
Andrew smiled when he heard that part of the story, because he knew that without Young, the Mormons might have dispersed, dooming their new religion. Instead, the Lord Himself directed Young to lead the Saints across the Mississippi River and through Iowa Territory, and across the wide Missouri to a place they called "Winter Quarters." And then in 1847, Young and a few of his followers journeyed all the way to the Salt Lake Valley, which Young declared would be the new Zion. Now, not quite ten years later, the Saints had a kingdom in Utah Territory and tens of thousands of converts, most of them poor, many from the British Isles and Scandinavia, and, like Andrew, Ella, and Nannie, they were being gathered to Zion to join with the Lord's chosen.
Andrew had studied the Book of Mormon, had been entranced with the story of the Saints, but even more, he had loved the joy of the new religion, the idea that he was blessed of God, and so he had been baptized. Ella joined the church not long afterward, along with the other members of the Buck and Macintosh families, all excepting Nannie, who worked in a hotel in Edinburgh and knew nothing about the missionaries at work in her town.
In fact, she did not know about the conversions at all until another maid told her that Nannie's family had joined the Saints. Nannie denied it and wrote her parents to warn them that vicious lies and rumors were being spread about them. "Ye must not come in contact with those vile Mormons for fear people will believe ye are amongst them. I write to warn ye that your reputation is in danger. Beware!"
And then she went home and discovered the truth for herself. "Ye, too, Ella?" she asked her sister, for the two had always been close. "Most of all, I canna stand it that ye are one of them."
"Ye don't know the blessedness of it. It's the pure religion our Lord founded so long ago, before it was fouled by the preachers with all their rules and rituals. Come to a service with us," Ella replied, and Nannie did so, if only to be better prepared to show her sister the error of her conversion. Ella introduced her to the shopkeeper-missionary Levi Kirkwood, an early British convert, who talked of going to America one day. After Levi told her about the teachings of the church, told her as the two walked the country lanes, Nannie, too, was baptized. The Holy Spirit had entered her, Nannie believed, although she might have been taken in a little by the youth and vibrancy of the missionary, so different from the gray-bearded patriarch of the local kirk.