In O My America!, the travel writer and biographer Sara Wheeler embarks on a journey across the United States, guided by the adventures of six women who reinvented themselves as they chased the frontier west.
Wheeler's career has propelled her from pole to pole—camping in Arctic igloos, tracking Indian elephants, contemplating East African swamps so hot that toads explode—but as she stared down the uncharted territory of middle age, she found herself in need of a guide. "Fifty is a tough age," she writes. "Role models are scarce for women contemplating a second act."
Scarce, that is, until she stumbled upon Fanny Trollope.
In 1827, forty-nine-year-old Trollope—mother of Victorian novelist Anthony—swapped England for Ohio and wrote one of the most sensational travel accounts of the nineteenth century. Domestic Manners of the Americans made an instant splash on both sides of the Atlantic: Mark Twain judged her the best foreign commentator of his country, and the last king of France threw a ball in her honor.
Fanny was living proof of life after fertility, and she led Wheeler to other trailblazing British travelers and transplants:
- the actress Fanny Kemble, who shocked the nation with her passionate firsthand indictment of slavery;
- the prolifically pamphleteering economist Harriet Martineau;
- the homesteader Rebecca Burlend, who had never been more than twelve miles from her Yorkshire village before she sailed to the New World;
- the traveler Isabella Bird, whose many ailments remained in check as long as she was scaling the Rockies;
- and the novelist Catherine Hubback, a niece of Jane Austen, who deposited her husband in a madhouse and rode the rails to San Francisco.
Tough-minded outsiders, these women's truest qualities emerged in a country as incomplete and tentative as their native land was staid and settled. And they discovered second acts for themselves at a time when the world expected them to politely disappear.
In O My America!, Wheeler tracks her subjects from the Mississippi to the cinder cones of the Mayacamas at the tail end of the Cascades, armed with two sets of maps for each adventure: one current and one the women before her would have used. Ambitious and full of life, O My America! is not only a great writer's reckoning with a young country, but also an exuberant tribute to fresh starts, second acts, and six unstoppable women.
Shortlisted for the Dolman Travel Book Award
British travel writer Wheeler (Terra Incognita) narrates the journeys of six 19th-century Englishwomen whose battles "to be themselves in a man's world as late middle age loomed" were transformed by their sojourns and in some instances, immigration to a burgeoning America: Fanny Trollope, mother of Anthony and a popular writer herself; Fanny Kemble, an actress turned unhappy slave-plantation wife turned abolitionist; radical social commentator Harriet Martineau; Illinois homesteader Rebecca Burland; invalid Isabella Bird, whose rugged adventures in Colorado put her illnesses into remission; and Jane Austen's niece, Catherine Hubback, who reinvented herself in Gold Rush era San Francisco. Wheeler creates vivid portraits of these female adventurers with vastly differing personalities and experiences, but she conveys a depressing lack of feminist awareness, describing postmenopausal years as "frumpy" and "the last gray chapters of female lives," referring to these brave women as her "girls," and selecting them as subjects "based on feelings of sympathy and empathic mockery." She seems shocked that their stories and tenacity "revealed a land as exotic as any youthful Xanadu." The narrative includes detours into American history and minibiographies of male icons, including Erskine Caldwell, Al Cap, Buffalo Bill Cody, and John Steinbeck. Wheeler's parallel travelogue distracts enough to seem self-indulgent but is too fragmentary to add much insight. 47 b&w illus. and maps.