Monday, May 8, 2017

Strong Female Characters

by Peter Leavell @peterleavell

She was a strong woman. But strength comes from pain.

Not all scars are worn on the skin.

Her husband decides to migrate west during the furious grip that held most Americans. They were well-off. Her hands are soft, face without blemish, 
white teeth, eyes dancing. Her clothes are fashionable, her home modest, her servants happy. Her bright gaze takes in the world with a sympathetic charm that belied her innocence. 

She agrees to the move for reasons she can no longer remember. That was 1870.

Dismounting the horse on that first night, her dress tears on the saddle horn and rips the skirt in half. The entire entourage on the wagon train laughs. When she sits by the campfire, the wind catches the fabric and throws it into the fire and her dress bursts into flames. Humiliation from men’s hands putting out the fire and despair at her devastated dress linger.

She promised not to wear a homespun dress purchased on the trail, but here she is, days later, with a colorless outfit, a bonnet protecting her sunburned and wind-chapped face. Every second she feels her beauty forever slipping away to the empty plains.

One week later, her shoes disintegrate, and she pulls on leather boots. They are surprisingly comfortable.

Her despair and loneliness turn to anger. She refuses to go on. The entire wagon train rolls past while she obstinately attempts building a campfire. To her surprise, flames leap to life. She brews coffee. With her soft hands. She drinks her own efforts, feeling strength course through her mind. A trailing wagon pulls up and the gruff man pauses, pours her coffee into his tin cup, takes a drink, and grunts with satisfaction.

Bacon and beans are her only fare for days. Tonight, she gathers the wood, starts the fire, and makes a deal with a nearby family for two potatoes. Her husband has time to hunt and brings back game. Working together with this man has brought her a meal she finds satisfying, and when he smiles at her, she feels a warmth she’s not experienced in years.

They stop for a funeral, and she cooks up extra meat and bread.

At the fort, she discards her last hoopskirt. Later that night, an Indian is wearing it. For the first time on the trail, she smiles.

In view of the mountains, she helps a woman give birth. The next day, the train rolls on.

As they ascend the trail, a wagon runs over a man. She sees him die. His screams linger all night.

The train comes across an orphan wandering alone in the foothills. Since she had no children, it is given to her.

She is hot, and they are burying another member of the train. Her husband disappears. As the afternoon scorches the pine forest, he returns, a bucket i
n hand filled with snow. He mixes it with water, and the cold drink refreshes them. While others watched the child, she and her husband slip away from the train to find cool water to bathe.

She walks with her husband every evening now. She realizes at some point she loves him. And for a moment, she is happy.

Then he sympathetically listens to her loneliness. Her heart burst. Tears.

The nights in the mountains are cold, and he wakes early and prepares breakfast for her.

Gloom from the long days disturb other men, making them tyrants. Not her husband. As she acclimates to the harsh travels, her beauty gone, her hair in tangles, he talks for hours about the home he will build her in the territory. Hopes. Dreams.

The orphan dies. She thinks she will name the baby blossoming in her womb after the dead child.

The horse remained hitched to the tent last night and walks away with their covering. They laugh until they cry.

She makes friends—friends who help them build their house in a wooded valley, who help her give birth to a daughter.

Her hands are rough, skin wrinkled. But her eyes still dance.


The diary entries I used to piece together this woman's life demand us, writers, to give a true telling of the American West. There's a reason women in the United States first won the vote in Wyoming, then Colorado and Utah. To me, they’re heroic and need to be shown as fallible but overcoming. 

So many stories have women of the West turning to prostitution. In some cases, yes. But not all. Nor were they all hoping to be swept away by a strong cowboy. These women are complicated and deserve a closer study to coax out intricate nuances that make each woman's decisions unique.

Could you do it? Travel west? Or would you stay in the east?

Peter Leavell, a 2007 graduate of Boise State University with a degree in history, was the 2011 winner of Christian Writers Guild's Operation First Novel contest, and 2013 Christian Retailing's Best award for First-Time Author. Peter and his family live in Boise, Idaho. Learn more about Peter's books, research, and family adventures at

Coming May 15th
Shadow of Devil's Tower
by Peter Leavell

“The second book in Leavell’s Dakota Sunrise series has action, adventure, secrets, romance and gunfights. The characters are witty, cunning and out for revenge. The storyline is fast-paced, with some twists and heart-pounding turns that enhance the overall plot. Leavell is an amazingly talented author, who brought his A game to this series. They will be longtime keepers.”



  1. Excellent perspective, Peter! I love that you use real diaries to get a glimpse of true stories of the Old West. The truth can be far more romantic. :)

  2. Exxcellent article! Too often we take a modern-thinking heroine, slap a bonnet on her head and stick her in a buggy and call the story "a Western." While it's true that most people desire the same things in life--love, security, comfort--the expectations of our ancestors were very different than ours, and their struggles were very different, as well.

    1. Yes! Exactly, Lynn. You could make that case for any point in history. The part I love with the past was that the tools to get what you want, and the way to get it, were different. Good stuff!

  3. Loved this, Peter. I learned so much about this woman in such a short time. Resilient - and someone to be admired for continuing on despite the hardship.

    1. Thanks, Dawn. Her story has me totally grateful about my own life today...

  4. I'm not sure I could have been a woman of the West. I would have pioneered in some other way. Probably as a woman in science, engineering, or medicine. Maybe a theologian.
    I moved West 20 years ago, in a 737 (or maybe an Airbus). A company reimbursed moving van packed my belongings. I moved for a job (they laid me off, but another company hired me; still there 18 years later) and a boy (married 18 years in July, in case you're curious how that ended)
    That said, I'm obviously descended from such women. Between my parents, I have English ancestors who arrived in Virginia in the 1500s (both sides), others on the Mayflower, and Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam (New York).

    1. Cool, Gretchen! Thanks for stopping by. I sure feel a little guilty as I fly over the Oregon Trail. HA!


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