Backwards to Oregon
April 6, 2013
Era Historical 1850’s/ Lesbian /Bisexual
Publisher: Ylva Verlag; 2 edition
"Luke" Hamilton has always been sure that she'd never marry. She accepted that she would spend her life alone when she chose to live her life disguised as a man.
After working in a brothel for three years, Nora Macauley has lost all illusions about love. She no longer hopes for a man who will sweep her off her feet and take her away to begin a new, respectable life.
But now they find themselves married and on the way to Oregon in a covered wagon, with two thousand miles ahead of them.
Backwards to Oregon is one of those stories that shined in both the detail of the time period it’s set in and the slow burn of a romance build up. Clearly it’s a long book, but author Jae managed to write about every day minutia and issues the characters dealt with as they made their way from Missouri to Oregon in the mid 1800’s in a way that kept my interest. I actually read this book fairly quickly due to it.
Backwards to Oregon also featured two tropes that are a favorite of mine: a female passing as a male, and marriage of convenience.
So let’s talk about Luke. Since the author uses the pronoun she when talking about Luke, I will stick with that as well. Luke is, to everyone she has contact with, a stand up, conscientious, and courageous man. She been in the army and fought bravely as a leader in the Mexican-American War and has returned to Missouri to head west to start a farm raising horses in Oregon. She’s worked hard to keep her identity as a woman a secret all this time and for the most part manages it.
Really, there is nary a hint of anyone questioning her gender throughout the whole book, which did make me wonder. But I’ve known and read about women passing as men and living as men during and long after a war, so suspension of disbelief was possible here.
Luke decides that to keep her identity and keep people from wondering about her while on her way to Oregon that she should find a wife. She chooses Nora, a prostitute in the local brothel. Nora, already having a child and no prospects other than being a prostitute, readily agrees, hoping to start a new life.
As they move their way across the land, Nora questions why Luke doesn’t want her sexually as this is what she expects he’d want as part of the arrangement. She thinks it’s really weird that he keeps his distance and often feels he doesn’t like her. For at least ¾ of the book Nora goes in and out of respecting how Luke is taking care of her and her daughter and how honorable he is, and wondering what’s wrong with him or her that he doesn’t desire her sexually. It does cause a lot of tension at times, both for her and Luke.
Throughout most of the trip, Luke feels inwardly, and even expresses outwardly, that Nora should find another husband when they get to Oregon. She knows that if Nora finds out she’s a woman, she will want to leave. This perplexes and freaks Nora out. Nora inwardly worries that Luke, not wanting her, will dump her as soon as they get there and then she might get stuck with a man like one on the trail who beats his wife constantly. Or even worse, that she will find no one and not be able to take care of herself and daughter.
What’s kind of interesting about this relationship is that due to the fact that Luke is hiding her identity, it really is a marriage of convenience. Luke steps up and takes full care of Nora and Nora learns to be a good wife, working hard to play her part and help Luke. This is where having to work together as a team to get to Oregon works in their favor. They both have to ignore their personal fears about their possible future without each other and in doing so learn to appreciate and respect, and…slowly come to love each other.
While neither Nora nor Luke talk about each other’s past, I liked that the author did eventually give some insight into how each character ended up where they were. They both come from vastly different worlds.
Outside of that slow dance that they do, the author went into incredible detail of life on the trail. I kind of actually felt like I was on that journey, with clear and intricate descriptions of the landscape, clothing, accoutrements used, and issues faced by pioneers sucking me in. It did feel like the author did extensive research. And since the book is long, the long journey between Missouri and Oregon, the ups and downs made me feel by the end that I was as tired as the characters were and couldn’t wait for them to get there. The main reason that I kept reading though was to find out what would happen once Nora would find out that Luke was a woman.
For me, to some degree, the story became a bit more interesting once she did find out. This is because until that point, Luke is like this perfect, can do no wrong, highly respected person in EVERYONE’S eyes. Once Nora and one other finds out, suddenly Luke doesn’t seem so honorable and her imperfections start coming through. I felt she became a more vulnerable and human person at that point. She also has to confront the “female” part of her that she’s denied due to acting and living like a man.
Nora is confronted by mixed feelings as well. One is that she’s lived an immoral life in the eyes of society and yet she has her own moral judgments about Luke and that Luke is living a sin by going against nature. This made her character a bit more interesting as well because she’s also fallen in love with Luke and tries to come to terms with those conflicting feelings.
There are a bunch of other clearly defined characters involved as well that also add a lot of drama. Bernice, a “respectable” woman, befriends Nora and helps her out, teaching her what is expected of her as a good wife and woman in society. I liked that she didn’t judge Nora when she finds out about her past, but she’s also a mixed bag of morality, having her own lines because she finds out about Luke. And then there were a few bad guys who added some tension to what was mainly a drama free drama.
As an historical set in the west, Backwards to Oregon is an excellent read. While not a gripping story as in full of tension, I still recommend as an entertaining one. Also, there is an extension to the story after the end, which I felt added a lot as well; an extension on their life after settling in Oregon.
Heat level: 1-2- some sex, but nothing graphically written or extensive.
Grade: 4 ½ Stars