And Then I Read: THE LOST WAGON

I read and enjoyed many of Jim Kjelgaard’s books growing up, most are stories about boys and animals, some just about wild animals, and a few about hunting. Kjelgaard’s most famous book is “Big Red,” about an Irish Setter, made into a Disney film. I found this novel recently in an antique shop, it’s one I’d never seen or heard of, and the jacket flap calls it the author’s first adult novel. It might be his only one.

The subject is the Tower family of 19th century Missouri, working a farm there, but having a tough time making a go of it. Father Joe Tower is restless, and stories of rich lands in the west convince him to sell his farm, outfit a covered wagon, and take the Oregon Trail toward a new life. His wife Emma is afraid of the idea, their nearly grown daughter Barbara and son Tad are all for it, especially Tad. Convincing Emma at last, the family sets out, but later than the usual yearly trek, and soon find themselves alone in the vast plains of the west, beset by obstacles and danger.

This book differs from Kjelgaard’s others mainly in the way it focuses on the inner thoughts and conflicts among all the family members, obviously aiming for a more general audience, including women. Emma’s struggle with leaving behind the safety of the known, and all her beloved household goods, is an example. While the characters are well developed, the story runs pretty slowly until they finally get moving west. Then it becomes much more of a pioneer adventure story, but with the addition of the romantic entanglements of daughter Barbara once the family reaches the first frontier army fort.

I enjoyed reading it, but the level of suspense is not huge, one feels the family is going to get through their troubles, and they do. In that way, it’s a bit like the TV series “Little House on the Prairie.” Only near the end is there any feeling of real danger when the long-anticipated Indian attack on their new home out west finally happens.

While the cover painting is vague and not very well done, the endpapers show better technique, but the woman (Barbara, I’d say) is laughably outfitted in 1950s clothes, and made up like a fashion model. I think this again shows how the book was being marketed.

And inside was this advertising flyer from the Sears Readers Club, obviously where the sale was made. I’d never heard of this club, modelled on the Book of the Month Club, I’m sure.

There’s a better illustration inside, though the woman is still suspiciously modern-looking, it might be by the endpapers artist. Even in the mid 50s, $1.39 sounds like an attractive price for the book.

Not a bad read, but I like other Kjelgaard books such as “The Black Fawn” much better. Still, worth a try if you can find it. The subject matter seems well-researched.

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