In O My America!, the travel writer and biographer Sara Wheeler embarks on a journey across the United States, guided by the adventures of six women who reinvented themselves as they chased the frontier west.
Wheeler’s career has propelled her from pole to pole—camping in Arctic igloos, tracking Indian elephants, contemplating East African swamps so hot that toads explode—but as she stared down the uncharted territory of middle age, she found herself in need of a guide. “Fifty is a tough age,” she writes. “Role models are scarce for women contemplating a second act.” Scarce, that is, until she stumbled upon Fanny Trollope.
In 1827, Fanny, mother of Anthony, swapped England for Ohio with hopes of bolstering the family finances. There, failure and disappointment hounded the immigrant for three years before she returned home to write one of the most sensational travel accounts of the nineteenth century. Domestic Manners of the Americans made an instant splash on both sides of the Atlantic, where readers both relished and reviled Trollope’s caustic take on the newly independent country. Her legacy became the stuff of legend: “Trollopize” emerged as a verb meaning “to abuse the American nation”; Mark Twain judged her the best foreign commentator on his country; the last king of France threw a ball in her honor. Fanny Trollope was forty-nine when she set out for America, and Wheeler, approaching fifty herself, was smitten. Fanny was living proof of life after fertility, and she led Wheeler to other trailblazers: the actress and abolitionist Fanny Kemble, the radical sociologist Harriet Martineau, the homesteader Rebecca Burlend, the traveler Isabella Bird, and the novelist Catherine Hubback—women born within half a century of one another who all reinvented themselves in a transforming America, the land of new beginnings.
In O My America!, Wheeler tracks her subjects from the Mississippi to the cinder cones of the Mayacamas at the tail end of the Cascades, armed with two sets of maps for each adventure: one current and one the women before her would have used. Bright, spirited, and tremendous tantrum-throwers, these ladies proved to be the best travel companion Wheeler could have asked for. “I had more fun writing this book than all my previous books put together,” she writes—and it shows. Ambitious and full of life, O My America! is not only a great writer’s reckoning with a young country, but also an exuberant tribute to fresh starts, second acts, and six unstoppable women.
“Funny and feisty . . . Hugely pleasurable.” —Christopher Hirst, The Independent
“It probably cannot be taught—a writer either is or is not sympathetic, amusing, insightful and informative. Sara Wheeler has had it from the off. You want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind.” —Roger Hutchinson, The Scotsman
“Precise . . . Compelling . . . A tribute to female exuberance in that most unsung of settings: middle age . . . Wheeler is consistently deft both at conveying atmosphere and character.” —Talitha Stevenson, The Observer
“Perfect for women who want to shake a fist at the fading light.” —Ginny Dougary, The Guardian
“A true celebration.” —Ruth Scurr, The Daily Telegraph
“Wheeler is a writer of great composure and energy, and out of these American adventures she fashions something unexpected and compelling.” —Anthony Sattin, The Spectator
“Filled with rollicking anecdotes and entertaining facts.”—Sarah Churchwell, New Statesman
“Touching . . . Carefully observed and finely written . . . [O My America! ] is not quite biography or history or memoir or the kind of travelogue for which this writer is justly praised but an oddly successful hybrid of them all.” —Kate Colquhoun, Daily Express
“[Wheeler] went looking for inspiration from women who traveled to America and found ‘second acts.’ Fanny Trollope (mother of Anthony), Fanny Kemble, Harriet Martineau, Rebecca Burlend, Isabella Bird and Catherine Hubback (Jane Austen’s niece) all left Britain—some permanently and some for shorter trips—to find something in America. Some loved the United States, and some hated it, but all were changed by the experience. Those experiences make up the meat of the book, and they are worthy of chronicling. Kemble was a British actress who eventually contributed to the cause of the Union in the Civil War. Burlend conquered the harsh wilderness of Illinois with her family and left a legacy that can still be found today. The stories are at once varied and remarkably similar, and the resilience of the women is impressive . . . asides about menopause and middle age personalize the author’s fascination for her subjects . . . Wheeler’s gift for biography is strong, and . . . the author ably captures these women and their travels.” —Kirkus