Reviewed: “The Queen of Heartbreak Trail: The Life and Times of Harriet Smith Pullen, Pioneering Woman” by Eleanor Phillips Brackbill

49.jpgIt’s hard to find biographies of pioneer women so I requested Eleanor Phillips Brackbill’s biography of her great-grandmother, Harriet Smith Pullen, the moment I saw it.

It should be noted that the title is a bit deceiving in that about a third of the book is more a biography of her father and only about a third has anything to do with Heartbreak Trail, the path that led gold miners to the Klondike during the gold rush there.

That being said, it is a fascinating story that Brackbill tells, one based on A.J. Smith’s diaries, court documents involving Harriet and her husband, and interviews Harriet and her children did in later years.

Other reviews compare it to Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Little House on the Prairie series but it’s much more… adult and unvarnished than those books. Harriet’s father pushed religion on everyone he met, rued the fact that Native Americans would be better of if only they were Christian, made his wife and eight children move again and again (often living in sod houses or shacks) because he decided actual laws were too hard to follow and he could start again and make his own rules. When Harriet grew up, by all accounts, she and her husband – a fur trader in the Pacific Northwest – treated the Quileute Indians horribly, to the point that the Indian agent in the area lobbied for them, the white settlers, to be removed from the land and expelled, I suppose, from the Olympic Peninsula. And this was at a time that the government was trying to force the Quileutes onto a reservation. Harriet and her husband had more problems than that and she went to Alaska at the start of the gold rush there, manipulating everything she could to make a new life in the fairly lawless land.

Harriet Smith Pullen was not perfect. She was not the paragon of law and order and civility. But she was a woman who really made herself the queen of her domain, whichever domain she chose in that moment, and that took courage, determination, and grit. Even if the results aren’t necessarily what we approve of today.

I’d rate the book higher but Brackbill lets the story lag in a few places, veering off into tangents that don’t relate in an obvious way to Harriet’s world and getting bogged down in details. That being said, perhaps the most compelling part of the story was the in-depth history of the Quileute Nation, something I knew about only because I, like so many others, read and loved TWILIGHT.

(I received a copy of THE QUEEN OF HEARTBREAK TRAIL through NetGalley and Rowman & Littlefield in exchange for an honest and original review.)

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