In O My America!, the travel writer and biographer Sara Wheeler embarks on a journey across the United States, guided by the adventures of six women who reinvented themselves as they chased the frontier west.
Wheeler's career has propelled her from pole to pole—camping in Arctic igloos, tracking Indian elephants, contemplating East African swamps so hot that toads explode—but as she stared down the uncharted territory of middle age, she found herself in need of a guide. "Fifty is a tough age," she writes. "Role models are scarce for women contemplating a second act." Scarce, that is, until she stumbled upon Fanny Trollope.
In 1827, Fanny, mother of Anthony, swapped England for Ohio with hopes of bolstering the family finances. There, failure and disappointment hounded the immigrant for three years before she returned home to write one of the most sensational travel accounts of the nineteenth century. Domestic Manners of the Americans made an instant splash on both sides of the Atlantic, where readers both relished and reviled Trollope's caustic take on the newly independent country. Her legacy became the stuff of legend: "Trollopize" emerged as a verb meaning "to abuse the American nation"; Mark Twain judged her the best foreign commentator on his country; the last king of France threw a ball in her honor. Fanny Trollope was forty-nine when she set out for America, and Wheeler, approaching fifty herself, was smitten. Fanny was living proof of life after fertility, and she led Wheeler to other trailblazers: the actress and abolitionist Fanny Kemble, the radical sociologist Harriet Martineau, the homesteader Rebecca Burlend, the traveler Isabella Bird, and the novelist Catherine Hubback—women born within half a century of one another who all reinvented themselves in a transforming America, the land of new beginnings.
In O My America!, Wheeler tracks her subjects from the Mississippi to the cinder cones of the Mayacamas at the tail end of the Cascades, armed with two sets of maps for each adventure: one current and one the women before her would have used. Bright, spirited, and tremendous tantrum-throwers, these ladies proved to be the best travel companion Wheeler could have asked for. "I had more fun writing this book than all my previous books put together," she writes—and it shows. Ambitious and full of life, O My America! is not only a great writer's reckoning with a young country, but also an exuberant tribute to fresh starts, second acts, and six unstoppable women.
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Wheeler’s gift for biography is strong, and despite occasional wanderings from the trail, the author ably captures these women and their travels.Read Full Review of O, My America!: Second Acts i... | See more reviews from Kirkus
The narrative includes detours into American history and minibiographies of male icons, including Erskine Caldwell, Al Cap, Buffalo Bill Cody, and John Steinbeck. Wheeler’s parallel travelogue distracts enough to seem self-indulgent but is too fragmentary to add much insight.Read Full Review of O, My America!: Second Acts i... | See more reviews from Publishers Weekly
The two Fannys merit the longest chapters. Wheeler finds Trollope to have a “voice that sings” from the pages of the often peppery “Domestic Manners,” and she relishes the opportunity to detail her subject’s extravagant failures...Read Full Review of O, My America!: Second Acts i... | See more reviews from NY Times
All these women were, in their way, pioneers, and Wheeler is acutely sensitive to how each redrew their boundaries, staking a claim to more than society was inclined to give.Read Full Review of O, My America!: Second Acts i... | See more reviews from Guardian
Wheeler is consistently deft both at conveying atmosphere and character.Read Full Review of O, My America!: Second Acts i... | See more reviews from Guardian
She greeted her 50th birthday in a motel in California's Mayacamas Mountains, reflecting on the lessons her subjects had taught her...Few would disagree with the conclusions of this highly enjoyable book: that the "last grey chapter" of life has to be faced with boundless courage and that reinvention is devoutly to be desired.Read Full Review of O, My America!: Second Acts i... | See more reviews from WSJ online
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