High-spirited young Jane is excited to be part of Mr. Mercer’s plan to bring Civil War widows and orphans to Washington Territory—but life out west isn’t at all what she expects in this novel that’s perfect for fans of Avi and Little House on the Prairie.
Washington Territory is just the place for men of broad mind and sturdy constitution—and girls too, Jane figures, or Mr. Mercer wouldn’t have allowed her to come on his expedition to bring unmarried girls and Civil War widows out west.
Jane’s constitution is sturdy enough. She’s been taking care of her baby brother ever since Papa was killed in the war and her young stepmother had to start working long days at the mill. The problem, she fears, is her mind. It might not be suitably broad because she had to leave school to take care of little Jer. Still, a new life awaits in Washington Territory, and Jane plans to make the best of it.
Except Seattle doesn’t turn out to be quite as advertised. In this rough-and-tumble frontier town, Jane is going to need every bit of that broad mind and sturdy constitution—not to mention a good sense of humor and a stubborn streak a mile wide.
MRS. D SAID TO LEAVE the packing to her, but when she wasn’t looking, I pulled out a half-size carpetbag I made from a flour sack and put in the things I don’t trust her with.
My lucky hopscotch stone.
Three hairpins I found in the big girls’ yard behind the schoolhouse from back when I went to school.
The little book Miss Bradley made for me from folded sheets of cheap blank ragpaper that she stitched up the spine with packing cord.
We’ve been staying at Lovejoy’s Hotel in New York City for two days before I get careless and go through my secret carpetbag when Mrs. D is only halfway out the door.
In three steps she’s standing over me, holding out her hand. “I must have that paper, Jane.”
“Why?” I ask, and it’s a perfectly reasonable question, but her brows twitch and her mouth goes tight and straight.
Usually when Mrs. D makes that face, it’s followed by her telling me how easy it would be for her to entrust my growing-up years to a Mother who keeps one of the mill-run boardinghouses back in Lowell. Those mills are desperate for girls to stand behind the looms now that the war is over.
Instead, she sighs like I’m simple. “In case I need to write to Mr. Mercer about the voyage. Now, do as you’re told.”
Mrs. D hasn’t exactly told me to do anything, and it’s not like she can write real good anyway.
“The pages are all filled up,” I reply, and I show her the ones at the front that are covered with copy exercises and sums.
She narrows her eyes but lets me keep it.
There are exactly seven blank pages at the end, but there’s no reason Mrs. D has to know that. It won’t be long before this little book will be useful once more.
We’re a week at Lovejoy’s before another member of Mr. Mercer’s expedition arrives. She’s called Miss Gower, and she barely gets through her nice-to-meet-yous before she tells us she already wrote to Washington’s territorial governor to ask that she be officially recognized as the Old Maid of the Territory.
There’s a pained silence. Being an old maid is akin to having a dire sickness or expecting a baby—something you don’t mention in polite company. Mrs. D looks faintly disgusted, like she’s about to change a very full diaper, but I blurt, “What did he say?”
“Hsst!” Mrs. D gives me a Look. “Children should be seen and—”
“He agreed, of course.” There’s more than a hint of pride in Miss Gower’s voice and half a chortle. “It’s best to call things as they are, and an old maid is definitely what I am and will remain, come what may. What should I call you?”
Miss Gower nods. She’s not even looking at Mrs. D.
“J-Jane.” I stand a little straighter, like I’m back at school giving a recitation. “Ma’am.”
“My stepdaughter,” Mrs. D adds with a sigh, “who really ought to know better than to speak to her elders in such a way.”
Whenever Mrs. D says things like this, I try not to giggle or roll my eyes. She’s only two and twenty, and she doesn’t look old enough to say things like Children should be seen and not heard.
She means them, though.
“This little charmer is my son, Jeremiah. We call him Jer.” Mrs. D turns Jer toward Miss Gower, since this is usually the part where grown-ups coo and make a sappy face to get him to smile.
Miss Gower’s brows twitch. “I so dislike the prefix step. It implies partitions in a family that holy wedlock should render obsolete.”
Papa said almost the same thing on their wedding day. We’re all Demings now. Steps are for walking down.
“Hmm. Well.” Mrs. D smiles all tight-lipped and pointy. “Do pardon us. The baby needs his rest. Jane?”
“Yes, ma’am.” As I close the door, Miss Gower is shaking her head like she just saw something impossible or ridiculous or both.
I like to think Papa would do something akin to that if he were still alive. That he’d notice Mrs. D sighing over my sawdusty bread and dirty fingernails and ask her to help me mix better or scrub harder instead of complain. He’d have surely given back all the dolls and skipping ropes and other childish things she made me hand over the day she had Jer. I like to think he’d be taking my side.
Mr. Mercer comes by the hotel again today to assure us we’ll be under way anytime now, bound for Washington Territory, where there are limitless opportunities for individuals of excellent character and the climate is positively Mediterranean. A number of us in his expedition are staying at Lovejoy’s, waiting for him to complete the arrangements.
The steamship was supposed to sail back in September. January’s half over, and we’ve heard anytime now since Christmas. No one wants to say what at least some of us are thinking: Perhaps Mr. Mercer is a confidence man who has pocketed our passage money and plans to run off with it.
If that were true, though, he’d surely be long gone by now. No, he’s probably trying to find just the right ship. It will need to be grand if it’s to fit the seven hundred unmarried girls and war widows Mr. Mercer plans to bring out west to teach in the schools of Washington Territory or to turn their hands to other useful employment.
Or, if you are Mrs. D, marry one of the many prosperous gentlemen bachelors pining for quality female society.
She’s pinned all her hopes on it. Mrs. D hated working in the Lowell mills. She hated leaving her kitchen and hearth and standing for fourteen hours a day before a loom, sneezing from all the dust and lint and not being able to sleep at night because of the ringing in her ears. She wants to be a wife again, to have someone else go out to work while she keeps house. If she has to go all the way to Washington Territory to do it, by golly, that’s what she’ll do.
After Mrs. D paid our passage, Mr. Mercer gave her a copy of a pamphlet he wrote about the advantages and charms of Washington Territory. She glanced at it once, rolled her eyes, then left it on her chair in the dining room. I snatched it up and hid it in my secret carpetbag, and when she’s not around, I read it.
I’ve read every word hundreds of times. Even the big words I must puzzle over. Even the boring chapters on Lumber and Trade.
My favorite part is the last chapter, Reflections Upon the Foregoing, where Mr. Mercer writes about the sort of person who would want to go to Washington Territory. An unspoiled and majestic place, he says, a place ideally suited to men of broad mind and sturdy constitution who seek to make a home through industry and wit.
The same must be true for girls of broad mind and sturdy constitution. Otherwise Mr. Mercer would never think to bring us out there. My constitution is sturdy enough. After Jer was born, I got strong hauling buckets of water and scrubbing diaper after diaper on a secondhand washboard.
The problem is my mind. It might not be suitably broad.
When Jer was just weeks old, I had to stay home from school to look after him while Mrs. D went out to work. I never much cared for school till I had something to compare it to. Suddenly all the braid-pulling boys and backside-bruising seats and longhand division and terrifying recitations in front of a frowning Miss Bradley weren’t so bad after all. Not when you put it against the endless trudge of keeping house, where there’s always one more thing to clean. Not when strangers on the street call you poor dear and cluck and sigh over all the fatherless children.
Beatrice was the first of my friends who stopped coming around. Jer cried the whole visit, and I couldn’t even offer tea because the fire kept going out. Not that there was anything to talk about. I didn’t know the new girl at school, and Beatrice didn’t care how hard it was to dry diapers when the weather was damp.
Elizabeth and Violet didn’t make it past the threshold.
It could have been different. It should have been different. Papa and Mrs. D were married when the war was going to be over by Christmas. Of 1861.
In Washington Territory they probably barely even knew there was a war. Just stepping off the boat in a place like that will give all of us what we want. Mrs. D will have her hearth. Jer will have his mama. Since she’s set on remarrying, better it be to a man who made his way west before any shots were fired on Fort Anywhere. A man with all his limbs, who doesn’t cringe when there’s a sudden loud noise. He’ll step right out of the chapter on Trade, maybe, or Civil Government, tall and handsome and happy to give Mrs. D whatever she wants, so she’ll smile at me and mean it, then tell me to run along and play and be home in time for supper.
I will have ordinary chores and lots of friends. I will have a dress that fits. I’ll spend my days in a schoolhouse instead of being someone’s little mother, as the mill girls would say. I will have limitless opportunities because of my sturdy constitution and a mind I hope to broaden. No one will ever call me poor dear.
No one will ever have cause to.
It’s been sleeting all morning, so Jer and I can’t play outside. Jer just turned two and already he’s trying to talk. Ever since we got to New York, the only thing he wants to talk about is carriages.
“Daney! Tarij. Tarij Daney yes!” Jer bounces on the bed in our room and points out the window at the sliver of street crowded with people and horses and wagons.
“You might think you want to sit out front and watch carriages,” I tell him, “but it’s too cold, so what you really want is to hear me reread Reflections Upon the Foregoing.”
“Tarij,” he repeats stubbornly, so I shrug and leave him at the window and read aloud anyway.
My brother doesn’t need to hear Mr. Mercer’s reflections the way I do. Saying the words out loud makes Washington Territory feel like a secret that’s been kept just for me, and it’s going to change everything.
J. Anderson Coats has master’s degrees in history and library science, and has published short stories in numerous literary magazines and anthologies. She is the author of the acclaimed novels The Wicked and the Just, The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming, R Is for Rebel, and The Green Children of Woolpit. She lives with her family in Washington State. Visit her at JAndersonCoats.com.
* “The strength of the novel comes from its characterization, especially Jane's, whose point of view becomes more reliable as she matures. This one's a keeper.”
– Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“Coats . . . shows considerable versatility in creating very different but equally vivid historical settings and characters. . . . A rewarding chapter book for historical fiction fans.”
“Readers will enjoy the twists and turns of the young protagonist’s life in this fast-paced novel. . . . Fans of Avi’s historical fiction and graduates of Little House on the Prairie will find this a satisfying read.”
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