Bravehearted: The Dramatic Story of Women of the American West by Katie Hickman

Bravehearted: The Dramatic Story of Women of the American West
by Katie Hickman

“Gripping,” “Exhilarating!”, “Captivating!” These are descriptors I often flutter my eyes at, chalking these up to marketing histrionics that serve solely to assuage publisher’s fears about book sales and authors’ egos. But in Hickman’s case, I was hard pressed to find more authentic adjectives for Bravehearted: The Dramatic Story of Women of the American West.

I was expecting no less, to be honest. I’ve read Hickman’s work before (Courtesans: Money, Sex and Fame in the Nineteenth Century (2003) and Daughters of Britannia: The Lives and Times of Diplomatic Wives (1999) specifically) and enjoyed her scholarship for many reasons. Bravehearted, however, was the first time I’ve read Hickman’s scholarship since I began and finished graduate school, becoming in my own right, a historian. I can now say I appreciate Hickman even more than I did previously.

Bravehearted (like Hickman’s other works) is, from the perspective of a general reader, incredibly easy and smooth to read. The facts (that is, the history) are woven so artfully into her prose that the reader never feels like there’s a history lesson embedded in it. (There is, of course. More on that below.) Instead, the women, men, and children — indigenous, white settler, and immigrant alike — feel like full-fleshed characters in a story set in an epic, sweeping landscape. I could not help but feel the tragedy and simultaneous hopefulness of their journeys across the United States. At times, the harshness of the wind, the damp of the rain, the aridity of the desert air seemed to tragic, and simultaneously hopeful whip my hair, slick my skin, burn my nose. Hickman achieves what all historians — storytellers that we are — aspire to do: transport the past into the dimension of the present.

Each chapter of the book focused on a different region, a different woman, a different route settlers took toward the Western coast. The Pacific Northwest, the Californian region, and the Southwest were all covered in succession in Bravehearted. Embedded within these pages were not only those perspectives of white settlers, but indigenous voices too; though, the focus of this book was primarily on the European, East Coast, Midwest, and White settlers who encroached, entitled and arrogantly, into Indigenous lands. There are mentions of other people of color, Chinese immigrants and Black women, but again, these feature less prominently than white women and men. It is worth noting that there are few Mexican/indigenous women in Bravehearted; indeed, as I attempt to recall the book from memory, I find myself unable to remember one. Of course, it’s possible I am just forgetting, but that in itself is telling: There weren’t enough of them mentioned to mark a place in my memory. (The index is absent in the ARC so I could not look up where I might have read about them in it.) This is a well-researched, brilliantly written work of historical scholarship for any audience, but, it is not a work of decolonization; its intent is not specifically aimed at disrupting dominant narratives of white settler colonization or to bring to the forefront the voices of women of color.

This is — and this is not a detraction so much as it is a neutral statement — a history for those who are interested in women and the gendered component of history of the American West. The lesson is a simple one, but one which still requires learning: white women were as much part of the making of the West into the White American West as white cowboys, sharp shooting lawmen, and male miners (there were female miners too!) In other words, white women (and women of color in lesser numbers) were there too and they shaped White America in equal measure to their masculine counterparts.

The content of Bravehearted is not entirely divorced from race or ethnicity, but certainly the focus here is gender more so than race or ethnicity. Hickman’s inclusion of men and women of color and the indigenous perspective is not minor or token in any way; it is well done, but academic readers who may be expecting a stronger connection between or a deeper discussion of gender and race might struggle to locate it within this particular work. This is — and again, this is not a detraction — a work for a general audience. What Bravehearted offers the reader is breadth, indeed, a wide lens of the landscape of the American West in terms of the gendered experience of traversing it in the 19th century.

If, by now, my final verdict is unclear, let me end with it: This is a fantastic telling of American history worth any and every reader’s time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s