What is the effect of revisiting well-known episodes – the Oregon Trail in the 1840s, the California Gold Rush a few years later, the Donner-Reed party disaster, the 'Whitman massacre' – from women’s perspectives? The most profound reorientation comes in Indigenous women’s accounts. They do not predominate numerically in this volume, but Hickman works to centre the hard truths they tell about the violence, environmental destruction and cultural ignorance attendant on westward expansion ... Part of the intensity of settler women’s accounts lies in the exquisite detail they allot to everyday social relations, an effect compounded by Hickman’s unerring eye for dramatic detail ... Working mainly with published sources, she has woven together an extraordinary range of women’s first-person voices – we hear from more than fifty of them – into a gripping narrative. Especially when she traces intersections among those stories, they show the West as a place of complex relationships.
In this spirited book Katie Hickman does her best to go beyond such causes célèbres to tease out the experiences of ordinary women — Europeans, indigenous, Africans and even Chinese — who lived and worked west of the Rockies from 1830 to 1880 ... Drawing on a rich store of letters, diaries and memoirs, she recounts the loneliness and terror of giving birth in an encampment hundreds of miles from the nearest medical help; dealing with a miscarriage when the wagons are due to depart at dawn; and watching your starving child gnaw at tree bark ... In the past 50 years there has been an explosion of scholarly research that has served to dismantle those hoary old myths about the Wild West as a white male space in which women wore pinnies and looked worried or sashayed into a saloon bar looking for trouble. In Brave Hearted Hickman makes deft and sensitive use of this new material. The result is a glorious patchwork, which can at times feel like a hotchpotch as we jump from life in the governor’s mansion to getting by on the reservation, but which does these extraordinary women proud.
... riveting ... Hickman’s writing is exquisite; her background as a novelist brings these women into dramatic relief. She has a keen eye for detail ... And yet, the logic of whom she includes is perplexing. Some of these women’s sagas are already well-documented...With a clearer through-line, these stories might offer a stronger antidote to the calcified mythology that gave us Gunsmoke and Yellowstone or, failing that, a better sense of how they helped shape our national identity ... Even so, this is an irresistible crazy quilt of Western history. A meticulous scholar, Hickman draws on diaries and memoirs to immerse us in these women’s lives and offer important correctives. Brave Hearted is an alternate history of a frontier that was home for some and a fantasy for others — a liminal space that existed in fact and folklore long after the Census Bureau decided it was gone.