cover image Ordinary Woman

Ordinary Woman

Cecelia Holland. Forge, $21.95 (224pp) ISBN 978-0-312-86528-3

Frontier adventure and the romance of roughing it are kept in check by the strong historical basis of Holland's fictionalized biography of Nancy Kelsey, the first American woman to reach California. Traveling by horse and on foot, 17-year-old Nancy leaves Missouri with a baby on her hip in search of California's holy grail. Part of the 1841 Bidwell-Bartleson party, Nancy and her husband, Ben, decide against the meandering Santa Fe Trail in order to take a more direct--and uncharted--course directly across the continent: traversing the Great Plains, the Rockies, the desert and the Sierra Nevadas. Disastrous weather, hostile Indians, rough terrain and the constant threat of starvation test Nancy's resourcefulness and steadfast will. The party's eventual arrival in California heralds the end of the era of Mexican occupation and the beginning of U.S. proprietary interests in the area.The Mexican-Californian landholding nobles are increasingly threatened by the influx of American settlers, especially when the Gold Rush commences. Skirmishes evolve into a rebellion and the settlers rally under the original Bear Flag made from Nancy's petticoats, wresting power individually from each Mexican settlement and conquering California in July 1847 with the capture of Monterey. Prolific historical novelist Holland (The Bear Flag) uses Nancy's own letters as well as archival material to recreate the life of a pioneer woman who was a legend in her own time (she died in 1896). The thorough research lends authority to a vivid and engaging narrative that suffers only a little from Holland's evident fervent admiration for her heroine. (Apr.)