Historic triptik 

Joanne Wilke throws it in reverse

In 1924, eight young women from Iowa decide to road trip through the national parks of the West. They buy two Model T Fords, camping gear and a small supply of canned food, being careful not to overburden their rigs with too much weight. They say goodbye to their families and set out for adventure.

Since roads were often one lane and never paved, sometimes they simply drive through fields. They patch frequent flats, change tires, clean spark plugs and tighten brake bands. At night, on the outskirts of towns, they sleep either in a side tent stretched from the vehicle to the ground, or in the Fords—the seats modified to lie somewhat flat as a makeshift bed. In all, these women travel more than 9,000 miles in nine weeks.

Eighty years later, Joanne Wilke, granddaughter of the woman who instigated the trip, tries to piece together the adventure from letters and postcards, a sparse trip log and a more detailed journal, and an interview with three of the travelers. Eight Women, Two Model Ts and the American West ends up using the family legend to tell a story of how one road trip changed not only the lives of the women who embarked upon it, but also impacted generations after. With clarity and workmanlike prose she stays true to the facts she has gathered.

Eight Women sometimes tells its story like a silent film, grainy impressions of girls in knickers pushing a car through thick mud or swimming in Salt Lake on some pages, weathered postcards and letters describing moments of boredom, homesickness or excitement filling others. Wilke’s prose can be, at times, minimal. Most of the characters are lost in the strict adherence to known history—we hear directly from only three women, the others known only in passing. Occasionally, however, Wilke lets go and tells us what she imagines:

Outside Goodrich I imagine the two cars bouncing close in tandem over a rocky section of road. Suddenly Zelma gasps and hits the brakes, forcing Marie to do the same. …[Zelma] doesn’t point, doesn’t speak—just stands there, staring into the distance. …One by one the others join her, squinting in silence at the shimmering horizon—at the Rocky Mountains.

At moments like these, when Wilke allows herself some creativity, the distance between characters, author and reader closes. And Wilke is most comfortable when she weaves her own impressions into the book, between vignettes of the historic road trip. For instance, when she writes about her own rugged, contemporary Western experiences—she and her husband buy land in Montana where they live without electricity, water, phone or plumbing—Wilke paints a vivid picture full of sounds and emotions.

“It was just as well we had no plumbing,” Wilke writes, “for when we got home from work the temperature was the same outside and inside, our quick fire giving only token heat in the dark before we crawled under a mound of blankets, knit hats still on.”

When Wilke tells her own story, she draws upon rich detail. But when she tells her grandmother’s story the details have been diminished by time. This disconnect is the book’s weakness, often giving the feeling of being stuck in someone’s living room with the slide projector clicking over some rather insignificant commentary of a long-lost personal vacation.

Still, Wilke gives the reader a refreshing and interesting glimpse into the past. Although the West was young, it was not as wild as some Western literature portrays. The women drive safely through national parks, meeting locals and fellow travelers. They travel without men or guns, two key ingredients in most stories of the West, but unnecessary to this one.  Conflict arises from dastardly car repairmen, forest fires, giant mosquitoes and bears. These women set out on an adventure to expand their horizons, to see mountains and what lay on the other side. They bring home a spirit of freedom and individuality, of strength and audacity.

Eight Women is a journey of discovery—for the women who took risks leaving home and for the granddaughter who brings them back. It’s a compelling story, but it doesn’t take the reader on a similar journey. While it plays with questions of identity and history, in the end the answers are hard to fit on the postcard home.

Joanne Wilke reads from and signs copies of Eight Women, Two Model Ts, and the American West at Fact & Fiction Saturday, Nov. 17, at 1:30 PM.
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