Living in the Pacific Northwest, I took a special interest in Jane Kirkpatrick’s new novel, The Memory Weaver, based on the true story of Eliza Spalding, daughter of real-life missionaries Henry and Eliza Spaulding. The elder Spauldings, along with Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, made the arduous journey from New York to Oregon Territory in the 1830s with the goal of spreading Christianity among the Nez Perce Indians. (Eliza and Narcissa are said to have been the first white women to make that journey.) Upon arrival, the Spauldings settled in Lapwai, near present-day Lewiston, Idaho, while the Whitmans went on to what is now Walla Walla, Washington.
In 1847, a measles epidemic broke out where the Whitmans were serving. Lacking natural resistance to the disease, many Nez Perce died, and they resented Marcus Whitman for, as they saw it, giving preferential medical treatment to whites. That, combined with other simmering resentments toward the missionaries, boiled over into a massacre which killed the Whitmans and 12 other men. Eliza Spaulding witnessed the carnage, as she’d been attending a boarding school run by the Whitmans. She was taken hostage, but her life was spared, presumably because she spoke Nez Perce and could act as a translator.
The Memory Weaver opens a few years after these events have taken place. The Spauldings now live in Brownsville, Oregon Territory, where the widowed Henry Spaulding is a traveling preacher, his missionary work having been shut down by the missions board in the wake of the massacre. Eliza, now thirteen, keeps house for the family and helps her father (a tough old bird with a significant mean streak) in his work. When she meets Andrew Warren, romance enters her young life, over her father’s vehement objections.
The novel alternates between Eliza-the-daughter’s first-person story, and the diary left by Eliza-the-mother. (These switches in point of view are not at all confusing. I had no trouble distinguishing one Eliza from the other.) As the younger Eliza grows to womanhood, experiences romance with Andrew, and faces life-changing decisions of her own, reading her mother’s diaries gives her eye-opening insights into the truth about earlier events.
I found myself deeply engaged with both the characters and the story. Eliza has much to cope with, between her traumatic memories, her cold, demanding father, and the normal trials of adolescence and first love. The story is laced with Scripture and biblical themes, which are woven in quite naturally. And as a lover of history, I was fascinated by the details of missionary activity and daily life in the Oregon Territory. Highly recommended.
Disclosure: I’ve been given a review copy of this book by the publisher. This generosity, while appreciated, has not biased my review. I also post some of my reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.