(C) Ages 8-10, (D) Ages 10-12, (E) Ages 12-15, Book Reviews, Chapter Books, Middle Grades, Nonfiction
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The Tragic Tale of Narcissa Whitman by Cheryl Harness

The Tragic Tale of Narcissa Whitman eloquently captures the hardships the early pioneers faced, the missionary ardor that inspired the Whitmans, and the unfortunate events that led to a terrible massacre.

The Tragic Tale of Narcissa Whitman and a Faithful History of the Oregon Trail by Cheryl Harness (Cheryl Harness Histories series). National Geographic Children’s Books, 2006. 144 pages.

  • Reading Level: Ages 10-12
  • Recommended For: Ages 8-12 (perhaps younger/older as a family read aloud)

Narcissa Whitman knew she wanted to be a missionary’s wife. The question was, whose? She turned down Henry Spalding. When mutual friends introduced her to Marcus Whitman, bound for Oregon Country to bring the gospel to the heathens, she felt he was the man. Clearly, Marcus felt the same about Narcissa. Shortly after they tied the knot, the Whitmans–along with Henry Spalding and his new wife, Eliza (awkward!)–were bound for Oregon together over what would become the Oregon Trail. Except it wasn’t a trail yet. Narcissa and Eliza were making history, and Harness’s words capture that momentous event:

The caravan crossed a grassy valley and a pretty amazing time-space intersection: The South Pass, Independence Day, 1836…. It was a direct way across the Continental Divide, America’s backbone. A jug of water poured onto one side would make its slow way to the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. Pour it onto the ground on the other side, and the water would flow to the Colorado or to the Snake and Columbia Rivers to the Pacific. Until that day, no female U.S. citizen had ever been where East truly meets West. It was such a big deal that Senator Lewis Linn made a speech in the Congress.

At the end of their journey, the Whitmans set up their mission in what is now southern Washington, ministering to the Cayuse tribe; the Spaldings headed to present day Idaho, to the Nez Perce. The Whitmans’ mission became the last base camp for the future Oregon Trail pioneers as they stopped to rest, gather supplies, overwinter, get medical treatment, and more before heading to their final stop in areas such as the Willamette Valley.

As the title says, though, this is the tragic tale of Narcissa Whitman. Harness navigates the tricky waters of historical hindsight well, showing how both the Indians and the Whitmans could have handled their interactions better, how both misunderstood the other, how each unknowingly made things worse. The Whitmans were massacred and many of the mission’s residents (including many children) were taken captive. The white men in the surrounding areas were up in arms, the Indians believed they’d done the right thing for their people, and the area still feels this tension today. The Whitman National Monument outside Walla Walla, WA, illustrates this tension; it’s worth a quick stop if you’re ever passing by!

Cheryl Harness is a name to know when looking for solid biographies. Her Cheryl Harness Histories Series includes several titles like the Whitmans; she has written many picture books, too. The Histories are longer, perfect for upper elementary and middle grades, and do a marvelous job of placing their subjects firmly in their historical context. A timeline of world events runs along the bottom of the pages, helping readers know what else was happening. One-page explanations of related people and events offer valuable extra information without detracting too much from the narrative flow of the text (unlike so many nonfiction books these days with scattered text boxes all over the page). Harness does her own illustrations and maps; these maps would be perfect “map copywork” if you are using this a school-related title!

In addition to her firm grasp of history and its many nuances, Harness writes literary history. Her style fits her subject and the terrain. In this tale told of the Old West and the hardy Oregon Trail pioneers, her tone is reminiscent of famous American tall tales (without sounding as far fetched as a tall tale). She also expertly captures the landscape, as in this passage about the Snake River:

Nothing at all like the wide, lazy Platte was the Snake River, boiling and blasting along between jagged walls of lava rock. Imagine August sun blazing down on hot dusty people, animals putting one sore hoof down after another, tales twitching at a misery of mosquitos.

Having been to the Snake in August, I heartily concur with this description!

We’re big fans of Cheryl Harness here at Redeemed Reader. Put them on your resource list if you teach history (home or school), or, if your family is interested in one of her subjects, check a book out from the library to enjoy as a fun read aloud. She is respectful to her subjects’ religious faith (such as the Whitmans), and she offers a traditional view of history that is sensitive to current sensibilities.

Cautions: none

Overall Rating: 4.5

  • Worldview Rating: 4.25
  • Artistic Rating: 4.75

See also The Adventurous Life of Miles Standish (one of the Cheryl Harness Histories like the Narcissa Whitman title). We also interviewed Cheryl Harness once–check out her thoughts on history!

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