reviews – The Sum of Our Past

Revisiting Pioneer WomenDeseret Morning News, Dennis Lythgoe
With accompanying black-and-white historical photos, this beautifully laid-out book is both good for exhibiting in the living room and for serious reading about the real problems of pioneer women.

The title, “The Sum of Our Past,” is borrowed from William Faulkner, who once said, “To me, no man is himself, he is the sum of his past.” That is the assumption of the author, Judy Busk, an English and journalism teacher, and formerly a columnist for southern Utah’s Daily Spectrum newspaper. She has written this volume as one to be cherished.

Busk tries to give an impression of “the sweep of daily existence” as she considers information from women’s diaries, letters, and reminiscences, then supplements them with her own life experiences.

She found “a strong thread of commonality in women’s experiences despite the diversity in heritage and lifestyle.” Busk and her husband retraced in their van the Mormon and Oregon trails as part of her study of pioneer women. Of course, they had futons instead of ticks to sleep on, a comforter, and a few other modern conveniences.

When the battery of the van died, they persuaded someone to give them a jump start—even though Busk had suggested to her husband that he “lay hands on the battery and give it a blessing to start. ‘I’ll lay hands on the battery, all right!’ he mumbled.”

Just as Mormons learn to “liken the scriptures unto themselves,” Busk likens the experiences of pioneer women to herself, wonders how she would survive the real wilderness without a credit card, inoculations against disease, and other wonders of the modern world.

One aspect of great interest to the author is pregnancy and childbirth under primitive conditions. Having given birth to six children of her own, she understands the experience but not the primitivism. Nevertheless, she speculates on all aspects of having children and then taking care of them under extreme physical circumstances.

Freely quoting from women diarists, Busk virtually climbs into their skin in a gigantic effort to emulate them and their privations. Surprised that pioneer diaries spoke of pregnancies as if they were “unremarkable,” Busk strongly identifies with the sacrifice these women made on the trail. Although she approached this task as a modern woman unable to replicate the trip of her forebears, she describes the problems remarkably well.

In successive chapters, Busk chronicles the route by Mount Pisgah; Winter Quarters; Lone Tree, Nebraska; the Black Hills; Devil’s Gate; Rocky Ridge; South Pass; Echo Canyon; Emigration Canyon; and Twelve Mile Canyon. During each stopover, she utilizes the journals she carried with her as her “library,” refers to them, soaks up their experiences, then puts herself in their places.

From the quilting bees of pioneer women to the intellectual and social challenges of women caught up in modern women’s movements—in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—Busk succeeds in giving women’s history a distinctive and believable flavor. It is her own flavor blended with her ancestors.

Journal of Mormon History, Laura Compton
In September 1993, Judy Busk and her husband, Neal, packed their van with books on pioneer women, diaries, journals, letters, photos, and Granny Pectol’s quilt and set out from Richfield, Utah, to take a two-week journey along the Mormon trail. Judy “wondered what differences I would discover as I tried to follow in the steps of pioneer women” (4). This book chronicles not only the differences but the similarities—physical, psychological, spiritual, and intellectual—between the author and her historic subjects.

The Sum of Our Past in not meant to be a scholarly analysis or in-depth study of the lives of pioneer women. While it includes excerpts from nineteenth-century letters and diaries and while it discusses some details of pioneer life in every chapter, the focus of the book is primarily how a modern Mormon woman experiences her life journey and how that life journey is affected by and compares with the journeys of women living in a different time and place.

Busk weaves together historic narrative and personal memoir in an enchanting, thought-provoking way. “Structuring the book as a combination of historical research and personal memoir was natural for me,” she comments, “because I have always responded to other people’s experiences by comparison to my own. I feel a kinship with women and, in writing this book, wished to solidify that bond by exploring common experiences” (xiii). Within her narrative, as she solidifies her own bonds with her physical and psychological progenitors, she skillfully poses questions which encourage the reader to explore that same kind of kinship and bond.

Although the book follows a set of geographic stops along the route between Illinois and Utah, It is not by any means a trail diary. Instead, each geographic site becomes the inspiration for study of a topic related to women. At Mount Pisgah, a museum tour brings an opportunity to discuss pioneer medicine and remember old family remedies. At the Stuhr Museum in Grand Island, Nebraska, a replication of a Pawnee Indian lodge inspires memories of Native American experiences—both nineteenth-century ones and those of Busk’s modern high school students. Only the journey through Emigration Canyon comes near to the average pioneer-on-the-Mormon-trail experience, as Busk examines at length the life and trail diaries of Eliza R. Snow.

Not all the memories are happy ones, and not all the family experiences are flattering, but one of Busk’s purposes in writing this book is to shatter or break down the mythical images of pioneers and find the real women hidden within. If she neglected to include her own foibles as part of her personal narrative, the reader would be left with only the author’s mythical shadow. In sometimes painful, sometimes funny, but always frank ways, Busk opens up her life to the reader. While it is refreshing to know that other women are struggling, it could be awkward to see family tensions set forth openly and freely.

But there is always something to keep the reader from feeling voyeuristic—a lesson learned, a bit of wisdom gleaned from a pioneer experience, and admonition to try to improve. One amusing story came as a result of visiting the renovated, spotlessly clean, Scovil bakery in Nauvoo. She asked if the bakery was actually used to create the gingerbread treats passed out by the hostesses:

I was informed that the gingerbread men were baked elsewhere so they wouldn’t “mess up” the bakery. No wonder women can stand in the confines of the small front room and idealize about how fun it must have been to roll pie crusts, cut cookie dough, and knead bread in the nineteenth century, popping the resulting delectables into a piping hot oven to bake and release savory smells throughout the house and neighborhood. Modern women conveniently forget the factors that make this vision of pioneer baking in the restored past seem so enjoyable: the replacement of hundred-degree summer heat with seventy-two-degree air conditioning and the replacement of long, incredibly hot dresses and petticoats with comfortable light-weight clothing. (29-30)

After pointing out the difference between the myth of pioneer baking and the realities of a hot kitchen in Nauvoo, Busk describes some of her own baking experiences. In hilarious detail she shares some of her more spectacular failures and successes: What was meant to be a circus scene turned into a history lesson about the La Brea Tar Pits: a white cake with pink and green gumdrop flowers became a group of ill-fated skiers buried in an avalanche; the ghost cake with the glowing sugar cube eyes actually turned out well, though, and the “Bunny Cake” (instructions included) is being used successfully by her children. Her baking chapter concludes: “If you happen to visit the Nauvoo bakery or any other restored pioneer bakery, ask the docent to direct you to the real kitchen where they actually prepare the sample goodies. The lumps of cookie dough glued to the floor, the mass of sticky dishes and encrusted pans in the sink, and the pile of deformed and rejected gingerbread men will cure any illusion you might have about the good old pioneer days.” (31)

Often while breaking down illusions and comparing and contrasting modern and historic experiences like those at the bakery, Busk takes time to insert questions. She also includes questions for each chapter at the back of the book, which could easily be used as a starting point for a book group or, as she suggests, a class discussion.

The Sum of Our Past is one more discussion-worthy book that will keep women’s stories available, relevant, and alive. By entwining the lives of historic and modern women, Busk has created a work that brings the past into the future, showing us that we are not merely individuals living in the here and now, but that our experiences are, indeed, a sum total of the experiences of those who have gone before, blazing trails and setting up milestones by which we can measure our own lives.

Midwest Book Review, James A. Cox
The Sum of Our Past: Revisiting Pioneer Women is a simply outstanding, photographically illustrated research-based study of women in the age of pioneering in the American west. Showcasing the remarkable stories of women making their way through the treacherous terrains of the western frontier as manifested through the life experiences of several representative women, The Sum of Our Past offers an intimate and intriguing narrative about strong-willed and enduring pioneers. A welcome and valued contribution to academic and community library collections, this book is very strongly recommended, especially for students of Women’s Studies and American History, for its concise documentary presentation of the life and times of remarkable women whose endurance was the foundation upon which our contemporary America was built.