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River Passage

Author: p.m. terrell

Reviewed By: Anne Holmes

River Passage &Raquo; 179 Bbook Photo

Note: This is a true story. As author Terrell tells it, her book technically falls into two genres: creative non-fiction and historical fiction. She’s deservedly proud that her original manuscript was admitted to the Nashville Government Metropolitan Archives for use by future historians and researchers. It’s also winner of the 2010 Bengal Book Awards. But you probably won’t be thinking too much about this once you start reading. No, you’ll just be turning the pages as fast as you can…

Terrell weaves an amazing tale, allowing us to join her ancestors, the Neely family, on their journey west from Virginia to Tennessee via flatboat, in 1779-1780. They were part of a journey history has deemed the “ill-fated Donelson Party.”

The trip was supposed to take four weeks, but instead it took four months – four long, cold months — December through April.

  • Four months during which the eleven people on the Neely family boat don’t have the opportunity to change their clothing. (They – as did those on the 30 other boats — lived in layers, to keep as warm as possible.)
  • Four months of poling their unwieldy boat by day, then stopping to cook a meal from dwindling supplies, over a campfire before cleaning up the dishes and falling into bed.
  • Four months of sleeping on two mattresses on the cabin floor – one for the women, one for the men. (Get this: They slept head to foot to allow more people to fit onto each mattress.)
  • Four months of living through frostbite, near starvation, disease, deadly rapids – and a mutiny. Not to forget that for hundreds of miles they were repeatedly attacked by the Chickamauga Indians.

I’ve never been in a flatboat, but I have seen a real wagon, from a wagon train. They are not as large as a minivan. I imagine the Neely’s living space wasn’t much larger, as we learn that it was roughly one-fourth the size of the home they left…and had to contain all their food and possessions, too.

  • You will be riveted as you ride along with the Neely family, working as hard as you can to stay alive while watching your fellow flatboaters fall ill with smallpox, become wounded, captured by Indians, or killed.
  • You’ll cringe as Mary, her sisters and mother become midwives, helping Elizabeth, a pregnant woman from another boat, through 24 hours of labor, and the delivery of a 7-pound son; then have to urge her to hike thought the wilderness next day, to avoid being shot by Indians.
  • You’ll fight beside Mary as she helps her brothers fend off Chickamauga war parties, who are picking off the boats, one by one. Feel her pain as they pole as fast as they can – away from the Indians and toward new and unknown challenges.
  • And you’ll be praying that the entire Neely family will make it to Fort Nashborough, (now Nashville,Tennessee) alive.

At one point, Mary and Elizabeth are talking. The discussion goes like this:

“…None of us knows what the future holds. We just have to keep getting up, dusting ourselves off, and keep on a’goin’.”

“And just where do you figure on getting the strength for that?”

“Sometimes you don’t have much choice. You put one foot in front of the other. And you keep doing it until you’ve gone a yard and then a mile and then ten miles.”

No wonder they call it the pioneer spirit.

Originally Published on NABBW.com

Anne Holmes Boomer-in-Chief of NABBW
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