From Lead Mines to Gold Fields: Memories of an Incredibly Long Life.
By Henry Taylor, edited and with an introduction by Donald L. Parman (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006, 230 pp., $24.95 paper)
SONORA PASS PIONEERS: CALIFORNIA BOUND EMIGRANTS AND EXPLORERS, 1841-1864
By David H. Johnson (Sonora, CA: Tuolumne County Historical Society, 2006, 208 pp., $30.00 cloth)
Despite the advent of e-publishing, the number of traditionally published books does not seem to be shrinking, and neither does interest in the American West. The two books in review illustrate the diversity that now attends western literature. They overlap in the time period covered and traverse much of the same turf, but vary widely in style and content. They also cater to different audiences. Henry Taylor's personal history is extraordinary only in its longevity. A semiliterate Midwestern farmer and miner who died in 1931 at age l06, he lived through the formative period of American expansion and economic development. Late in life he dictated his reminiscences to family members in at least two different oral interviews nearly thirty years apart. The handwritten notes of these oral sessions eventually disappeared but not before they were transcribed for family use by a highly inaccurate typist, who mayor may not have remained faithful to the author's spelling and syntax. The result was a problematical typescript that much later came to the attention of Donald L. Parman, a retired professional historian who worked diligently to shape it into a readable narrative.
David H. Johnson's book is quite different, yet in some respects complements the Taylor story. Taylor's favorite and apparently most extensive memory was of his 1852 trek to the California gold fields, following the footsteps of the Forty-niners and repeating many of their follies. Johnson, a retired teacher and careful scholar, prepared this narrative history and guide after years of hiking, photographing, and researching the people and paths of overlanders who pioneered the highest and worst route over the Sierra in the years between 1852 and 1855. His work is selective but finely crafted, a descriptive chronicle as well as a reference tool. Casual readers will appreciate the historic and contemporary photographs that highlight this work, but its most distinctive feature are twenty-one topographic maps, drawn by the author himself, showing the pioneer routes over Sonora Pass and nearby alternates in painstaking detail.
Johnson traced the Sonora Pass routes and families by compiling data from census records, newspapers, family narratives, correspondence, interviews, and archival records, but his perspective on social and economic themes might have been enlarged by a broader reading of the pertinent scholarly literature in these fields. Parman relied on standard reference works to clarify and contextualize the Taylor memoirs, but excessive editing and frequent explanatory notes buried in the end pages are often more distracting than edifying.
Western American literature remains popular and prolific. Thousands of new books pour off the presses each year, offering consumers a significant number of choices. Johnson's book is geared to a specialized audience of readers interested in historic routes and travelers over the southern Sierra. The value of Taylor's narrative lies less in its descriptive content than in its personification of attitudes and traditions within America's nineteenth-century heartland, where familial ties and extended relationships provided both financial and emotional support.
REVIEWED BY RONALD H. LIMBAUGH, EMERITUS PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, UNIVERSITY OF THE PACIFIC
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|Author:||Limbaugh, Ronald H.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2007|
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