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Book review

‘O My America!’ by Sara Wheeler

Harriet Martineau.

Spencer Arnold

Harriet Martineau.

It’s hard not to like a book with a chapter that begins “Isabella Bird was a Victorian lady traveler, one of that tribe of battleaxes who sailed through malarial swamps, parasol aloft, or scaled unnamed Pamirs trailed by a retinue of exhausted factotums.” Another begins with this gem: “Fanny Trollope was broke when she turned fifty, and on intimate terms with pig manure.”

Trollope and Bird are two of the subjects of Sara Wheeler’s delightful amalgam of biography, travelogue, and personal essay, “O My America!: Six Women and their Second Acts in a New World.” Wheeler tracks her subjects — Britons all like the author, born within a half century of each other — in six separate, chapter-long sketches across the lower 48 as they encounter the full range of American life in the 19th century, from the Wild West to the slave South.

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Partly prompted by her own journey into middle age (“I was approaching fifty — that treacherous female age.”) and her fondness for the United States, Wheeler explores how these women broke away from the established patterns of their lives and headed across the Atlantic.

By turns emigrants, travellers, pioneers, adventurers, these women — some approaching middle age, others living through it — came to the United States to explore or to make a buck.

Bird rode hundreds of miles through the Rockies on horseback. Catherine Hubback, a niece of Jane Austen and a would-be novelist, followed a son to Oakland, traveling by train in 1870 across the country.

The chronically hard-up Trollope, mother of seven children, one of whom was Anthony, decamped in 1827 to a Utopian commune in Tennessee and then on to Cincinnati. There, she schemed and hustled, building a sort of department store and “cultural entertainment center’’ (never opened) called the “Bazaar’’ — locals dubbed it “Trollope’s Folly.”

She then returned to England and wrote “Domestic Manners of the Americans,’’ “a vivid, funny, idiosyncratic and deeply selective portrait of America written in prose with serrated edges.” Published in 1832, it caused howls of outrage stateside for it’s skeptical take on the creed of equality. Still it was a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic.

Trollope was Wheeler’s inspiration, “living proof that there is life after fertility.” Herself the mother of two boys, now grown, Wheeler is a noted travel writer, journalist, and adventurer, known for her writings on both Poles. She crashed the largely male world of Arctic exploration and its boys club of heroes — Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen — and has produced an admirable body of work that includes “Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica,’’ “The Magnetic North: Notes from the Arctic Circle,’’ and fine biographies of Denys Finch Hatton and Apsley Cherry-Garrard.

Wheeler tells us that she had more fun writing “O My America!’’ — the title comes from a John Donne poem — “than all my previous books put together.” It shows. Though one chapter, on Illinois homesteader Rebecca Burlend, feels thin, more dutiful than inspired, Wheeler’s writing here is conspicuous for its zest, humor, and pathos. The author ruminates on menopause, motherhood, and the writing life, but never overindulges in navel gazing — the blithe, seriocomic Wheeler is much too much of an Englishwoman for that kind of thing.

British traveler and writer Isabella Bird.

Hulton Archive

British traveler and writer Isabella Bird.

The footloose Wheeler fetches up in New Orleans, Kentucky, California’s Steinbeck country, the Rocky Mountains, and Georgia’s Sea Islands as she reflects on 21st century America. Down South, she ponders the experiences another Fanny, famed Shakespearian actress Fanny Kemble, whose second act actually began when she was quite young. In 1834, the 25-year-old Kemble married American Pierce Butler, whom she met during a theatrical tour of the states. Scion of a prominent slave-owning family, Butler owned vast rice and cotton plantations. The marriage was not a happy one — they would divorce in 1848 — and the brutal conditions Butler’s slaves endured shocked Kemble. “It is too dreadful . . . to have those whom we love accomplices to this wickedness,” she lamented. “[I]t is too intolerable to find myself an involuntary accomplice to it.”

Later, as the Civil War raged, Kemble, back in England, would produce a third act of sorts, when she penned a damning look at the institution of slavery, “Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation.’’ It marked a personal redemption, “a beautiful creation fashioned from the festering garbage of the past,” in Wheeler’s arresting phrase.

As she notes, books were among the few venues where women could influence debate, as did the now forgotten Harriet Martineau. The only recognizable feminist among Wheeler’s sextet, Martineau, a campaigning progressive and social critic, held distinct, idiosyncratic views: “I regard the American people . . . as a great embryo poet, now moody, now wild.” Wheeler waspishly observes that Martineau was “[l]ike others who strive to improve humanity, she didn’t much care for its individual representatives.”

For me, it is the crackling chapter on Bird that truly soars. Toothless and four foot ten, Bird was a sickly invalid at home in Scotland; but in America her love of travel and adventure erupted and she became an indomitable powerhouse who trekked through deep mountain snows and took up with Rocky Mountain Jim, “a one-eyed desperado with a whisky habit.” The first female Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, Bird died at 72, “bags packed and labeled for the next journey.” Bird’s story, like the other women detailed here, was one of courage and will in equal measure.

Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at price68@gmail.com.
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