Historical romance is a popular genre in fiction these days. Cathy Luchetti shows that the real thing can be even better. In "I Do!" she traces love and marriage on the frontier from Colonial times to the turn of the century (roughly from 1715 to 1915), putting together a history that is poignant, humorous and insightful.
Sometimes thought of in terms of a footnote, romantic love was actually a pivotal emotion in the history of the West, says Luchetti. "Romance, and the concept of romantic love, was revolutionary for 19th-century women, more important, even, than suffrage. Men could leave home for land, adventure and opportunity, but women, historically, had been denied such freedom. With romantic love came the first unassailable way to strike out on their own, leaving behind dictatorial parents, family servitude and arranged marriages. Romantic love often drew women west to claim Oregon Donation Act acres, to homestead and to marry. . . . Romantic love thus altered and affected the tide of history in the West, as whole populations shifted to fill gender voids."Just the numbers - some 16,584 bachelors to 1,426 single women - meant things would be handled differently on the frontier. While some couples went west together, others were brought together by the whims of fate and circumstance. And for some men, finding a wife was a true challenge. So, personal ads were popular; mail-order brides were not uncommon; frontiersmen often resorted to courting teenagers (Davy Crockett was so in love with a young girl his heart "began to flutter like a duck in a puddle," knowing he would marry only "if someone else didn't get her before Thursday"). There were child brides so young they took dolls to the altar, and bachelors so anxious to find brides they rode from house to house asking about marriage prospects.
But whether they were trappers and traders, ranchers and cowboys, miners, military or homesteaders, the men and women of the West shared many of the same hopes and desires - and many of the same feelings and emotions people do today. "To glimpse love in the past is to understand love in the present," says Luchetti.
Minorities - from African to Asian to Indian to Hispanic - had their own rules and customs, which sometimes lead to misunderstandings and sometimes to interesting interactions with Anglo settlers.
And not all marriages were for love, nor did all love stories have a happy ending. Desertion and divorce were accepted as a fact of life (one Montana newspaper ran two side-by-side columns listing divorces and marriages, and sometimes the same surnames appeared in both).
Polygamy (both among Mormons and Indians) is discussed. And Luchetti looks at the ongoing battle between vice and virtue (prostitution, unwed mothers, infidelity and such), but throughout it is all very tastefully done.
Each section also includes excerpts from diaries and journals, often very candid and telling, that serve as a reminder that these were real people, with real feelings and experiences. "Without the painstaking journal-keeping of the 19th century, few would know the deepest reflections of the men and women from the country's past," writes Luchetti. "Free to confide their innermost thoughts on paper, they wove together past and future, inscribing a saga of fear, joy and often love, as their lives unfolded."
Equally striking are the photographs, gathered from collections and archives throughout the West, of weddings, couples, families, men and women - providing a fascinating peek into the past.
Luchetti, whose previous books include "Women of the West" and "Home on the Range," is known for her non-traditional look at Western history. "I Do!" continues in the same vein - a thoughtful, well-researched and intriguing work.