An interview with Melanie Dobson, author of Where the Trail Ends
Many events in our country’s history have shaped us into the nation we are today—countless stories of brave men and women giving up the lives they knew in hopes of making better ones for their families. Sometimes they lost everything they owned to build this nation, but in the midst of their losses, many of them discovered faith and love. Life was especially difficult along the Oregon Trail, as depicted in Where the Trail Ends by Melanie Dobson (Summerside Press/October 2012/ISBN: 978-1-60936-686-5/$12.99), one of two debut releases in Summerside Press’ new American Tapestries™ line of historical romance novels.
Melanie Dobson’s writing has allowed her to travel to and explore many locales around the country, but she was excited that Where the Trail Ends allowed her to stick closer to home. “Our family moved to Oregon six years ago, and I’ve been intrigued by the unique history of this state ever since,” explains Dobson. “Writing this novel gave me the wonderful opportunity to delve into the history of my new home state and learn about the strength and determination of the first Oregonians.” She shares more about her new release in the interview below.
Q: You are one of the first two authors to release a book in the American Tapestries series. How did you become involved in the project?
It’s such an honor for me to join Janice Thompson in launching this wonderful series about significant events in our country’s history! I wrote five historical novels for the “Love Finds You” series and I so enjoyed writing each one of these that when Summerside began developing the idea for American Tapestries, I was really excited about the opportunity to partner with them again.
Q: The American Tapestries line sets a love story against the backdrop of an epic moment in American history. Did you get to choose the event yourself, or did you have options to choose from?
The editors and I brainstormed almost a dozen major events in our country’s history, but we kept coming back to a story about the Oregon Trail. Most of my books have been set on the other side of the United States so I loved the idea of setting a novel in the beautiful and rugged state that my family and I call home.
Q: Did you choose to write about the Oregon Trail because it was close to home?
Our family moved to Oregon six years ago, and I’ve been very intrigued by the unique history of this state ever since. When Summerside asked me to write a novel about the Oregon Trail, it was a ton of fun for me to delve into the history of my new home state and learn about the strength and determination of the first Oregonians.
Q: Writing historically accurate novels take a lot of research. Have you always had a love for history and research?
When I was younger, I loved reading about history, but I hated the timelines I had to memorize in school. Instead of learning about dates, I wanted to hear stories! For a long time, I thought I would be an archeologist until I discovered that I enjoy digging up information about people and events a lot more than bones and artifacts…and it’s a bit less dusty. My oldest daughter now wants to be an archeologist.
Q: What is the first thing you remember learning about the Oregon Trail? How old were you?
I grew up in Ohio, and while I don’t remember the first time I learned about the Oregon Trail, I was an avid fan of the Little House on the Prairie series. The life of pioneering families fascinated me so much as a child that I spent hours sending my Barbie dolls off into the vast frontier (also known as my basement) in a shoebox-turned-wagon. I still treasure the memories of those Barbie pioneer days.
Q: What would it have been like for a single woman out on the trail?
A single woman on the trail would most likely be single because she’d lost a spouse or a parent along the way. There wouldn’t be time for her to stop and grieve her loss so she would have to grieve as she worked and walked all the way to Oregon City. The wagon trains were run like democratic countries so each party had unique rules that they agreed to through voting. Usually only men could vote so a single woman would be at the mercy of the others in her party. Most wagon trains would have rallied together to help a widow or a young woman if they had enough supplies to do so, but there was no guarantee.
Q: What are some of the conditions settlers on the trail would have to endure?
Approximately three hundred thousand Americans traveled West on the Oregon Trail, and the conditions were often horrendous. Not only did the emigrants have to protect themselves from extreme weather and dangerous animals, the first Americans to travel to Oregon Country in a wagon train had to ford dangerous streams, fell trees, and leave behind most of their belongings in the rugged mountains. About thirty thousand pioneers lost their lives on this journey to accidents, drowning, and cholera—one grave, it is said, for every eighty yards of the trail.
Q: What are a couple of facts that you found while researching for this book that you never knew before and think that audiences will find particularly fascinating?
I’ve always been fascinated by how these emigrants could survive six months on supplies from a wagon so almost every detail of the research captivated me. While I once thought that pioneers rode their wagons west, I discovered that almost everyone walked the entire two thousand miles from Missouri. The children were often responsible for counting the rotations of a wagon wheel to see how many miles they traveled each day, chewing coffee beans to stay awake so they wouldn’t be run over by another wagon. I also didn’t realize when I started that what was known as Oregon Country was jointly owned by the British and American governments until 1846. The British fur companies and local Indian tribes were amiable, and they worked together for decades to trap animals and ship thousands of pelts back to London where beaver top hats were quite fashionable among noblemen. The British didn’t think Americans would ever be able to cross into Oregon by land.
Q: If our audience would like to visit a museum or exhibit to learn more about the Oregon Trail, where should they go?
There are actually two fantastic museums about the Oregon Trail. The first is the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center near Baker City, Oregon. This museum has old wagons and artifacts and a wonderful visual timeline of the trail as well as a fun children’s section where my girls dressed up as pioneers. The second is the National Oregon/California Trail Center in Montpelier, Idaho. A wagon master guides visitors through this amazing center as you travel together back in time about a hundred and fifty years. This tour—and the simulated wagon ride—was an unforgettable experience for my family and me.
Q: Is there a spiritual thread through the story or a message that you hope readers come away with?
One thing I love about novels with spiritual themes is that God often speaks to readers in a way the writer never intended. The spiritual threads in Where the Trail Ends are about God’s faithfulness and protection and also about crossing over into what The Pilgrim’s Progress calls the “Celestial City”. I pray God will use this story about a harrowing physical journey to encourage people wherever they are on their own journey.
Q: What’s next for you? Will you be writing another release in the American Tapestries line? Where will you be taking readers next time?
I’m hoping my next writing journey will be to Williamsburg and New York City during the American Revolution. My daughter and I just toured the old plantations along the James River, and my mind is full of possibilities about a female spy who risks everything to help the Patriots win this war.