• The Bossy Bookworm

Review of The Fire and the Ore by Olivia Hawker

Hawker offers irresistible details of daily life and historical elements that add vivid layers to this story of Utah Territory, Mormonism, and strong women in the mid-nineteenth century.

If she still felt any shame, then shame was a distant thing. It was hung far above, among the stars, and Tamar had no use for it now.

In The Fire and the Ore by Olivia Hawker, the author tells a tale of the interconnected lives of three women in Utah Territory in 1857 and of the burgeoning Mormon faith in that place at that time. The story is inspired in part by Hawker's own ancestors' experiences.

Much of the story is set on the unforgiving trail west to Utah (and if you're looking for a reason to feel thankful for comforts like shelter, clothing, and food, this section should do the trick).

The strenuous trip is inspired by religious fervor. Shared reminders of their new but unflinching, unquestioning faith help drive Tamar Loader, her family, and others in their group into ill-advised situations, brutal weather, dangerous river crossings, snow-covered mountain passes, and more in order to reach the promised land.

The reader is able to ascertain the repeated and immense failures of human planning that pushed the pilgrims into often-deadly situations, and to feel fury at the multiple layers of negligence that compromised their journey. (The author's note at the end of the book spells out more of the historical background regarding the shift to the forced use of handcarts rather than wagons, for example, due to cost, as well as the deadly lack of supplies and support, the origins of European inspiration to explore the new faith of Mormonism, and more.)

Meanwhile, reassuring religious visions appear to several members of the group, spurring them on when their physical exhaustion, threatened starvation, and various impairments threaten to stop their progress, and inspire unquestioning adherence to Mormon leadership's plans for the journey and for the structure of the pilgrims' lives upon arrival.

Jane (the character is inspired by the author's own ancestor of the same name) is a tough young woman in Utah Territory. She is no Mormon, nor does she know much about the faith. But due to family deaths and illnesses, she's desperate for stability, and she knows that her younger sister may not be able to survive without better shelter and care. When a local Mormon man offers a marriage in name only (and pledges financial support), she's inclined to consider taking advantage of what seems to be his foolish generosity.

Tabitha is a healer in Utah, married to an up-and-coming brother of the Mormon faith. She takes Jane under her wing, encouraging her natural affinity for understanding the power of herbs and for caring for those who are ill.

Tamar, Jane, and Tabitha, recently strangers, become linked by complicated connections to one man. When the US Army invades Utah late in the book, the women must flee into the desert to survive. While carving out an existence in the stark landscape, they take stock of where their lives might lead them--whether banded together or seeking their own individual luck.

"Each of us came into this marriage for reasons of our own.... We have our separate feelings about our circumstances, but we find ourselves standing where we stand. None of us can change what has transpired. We are in this together, by God's will, for better or for worse."

Hawker is skilled at using well-researched details to bring to vivid life a place and time in history (see my mentions of two other books of hers, below), and these daily-life gems were a highlight for me while reading The Fire and the Ore.

The author's note explains the historical events at play and illuminates the ways in which Hawker's historical fiction explores aspects of real-life religious beliefs, plural marriage, governmental involvement, community resistance, and more. ("The majority of Mormons who immigrated to America came from factory-working families.... Mormonism offered these people hope--for, during that time, the church espoused its great dream of building Zion, a cooperative community where all who worked would have an equal share.... Mormonism shone before these desperate families as a real hope for a good life.")

Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?

Hawker is also the author of The Ragged Edge of Night, which I mentioned in Six Historical Fiction Books I Loved Over the Past Year.

Hawker also wrote One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow, which I listed in the Greedy Reading List Six Great Historical Fiction Stories Set in the American West.