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O My America!: Six Women and Their Second Acts in a New World

3.25  ·  Rating details ·  118 ratings  ·  32 reviews
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—
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published September 24th 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published January 1st 2013)
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Average rating 3.25  · 
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Oct 11, 2013 rated it it was ok
I was SO looking forward to reading this book and it was SO disappointing. When the author is about to turn 50 she finds these English women who all spent the second half of their lives in America reinventing themselves. Each chapter is about one of the women and there is also a LOT of background about what was going on during that time period in US history. While some of the women's stories were interesting, overall the whole book felt disjointed and some of the chapters had a lot about the ...more
Nicola Pierce
Sep 13, 2015 rated it liked it
I had two problems with this book but, apart from those, I did enjoy it because I love reading biographies and I love American history.

At the very beginning, in her Author's Note, Wheeler declares that she finds the act of using first names in biographies to be "deplorable" - a strong word indeed and I could not fathom why she was appealing for my understanding in this regard, asking the reader how could she call a woman 'Fannie' when she has never met her. I mean what else would you call a
Nov 21, 2013 rated it liked it
A very pleasant read. Wheeler follows the fortunes of 4 women who were very famous in the day, and still mean something now: Fanny Trollope, Fanny Kemble, Harriet Martineau and Isabella Bird. For good measure she adds 2 unknown ones, homesteader Rebecca Burlend and Catherine Hubback, one of Jane Austen's nieces and herself the author of several turgid novels. Wheeler describes all these ladies with verve and empathy, without failing to make fun of their prejudices or idiosyncrasies. Having ...more
Jan 06, 2014 rated it it was ok
I still love the concept of this book. Unfortunately, the author couldn't pull it off. Six independent women left England to rediscover themselves in pioneering USA in middle age and this author describes their experiences and even follows their travels herself using maps they would have had in the 19th C and current maps. How cool is that, obviously a good gift for me. But she wandered too far from topic to provide history and trivia from the time. Perhaps she didn't have enough material on her ...more
Janice Griffin
Feb 08, 2014 rated it did not like it
Shelves: l-l-l
only read the first two and a half chapters. poorly written and edited. it was as if the author published her research notes before organizing them. all additional members of my book club agreed.
I really enjoyed this book, and the only reason it’s at three stars instead of four is that it took me a long time to get through.

Wheeler charts the second acts of six women who emigrated to America as it was building a national character for itself, from an early social commentator to an actress and abolitionist to a homesteader.

One of the things I loved about this book was the vivid descriptions of the time period and the places—particularly the wilderness of the Midwest. I also liked that
Nov 24, 2017 rated it did not like it
I really wanted to like this book. Wheeler tells the stories of 6 English women who come to America in their 40s and 50s to start over. For some this means beginning businesses, while for others it means homesteading on the frontier. As she tells their stories, Wheeler sets off on her own journey with two maps; her GPS and the maps that would have been available to each of the six women. She attempts to retrace their steps and see America as they would have seen it. Unfortunately, I found ...more
Russell James
Sep 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Resolute British women travelling in - and exploring - America in the 19th century. The tremendous and at times startling stories of Fanny Trollope, Fanny Kemble, Harriet Martineau, Rebecca Burland, Isabella Bird and Catherine Hubback. Snippets of Wheeler's own life thrown in for added spice (though she was not a happy woman at the time, we glean). A tremendous read.
Lyn Relph
Apr 07, 2013 rated it liked it
I have to say that my final response to Sara Wheeler's writing is much like her response to Harriet Martineau's.

Wheeler travels the routes of six nineteenth-century British women into and across the U.S. in search of herself at midlife. At the end we leave her in the little mountain town of Mineral in the shadow of California's Mount Lassen, a volcano last active in 1917. So she shares some spirit with one of her "subjects," Isabella Bird, who in Colorado discovered something within herself
Susan Emmet
Feb 14, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I seem to say this too often lately, but this is a wonderful book - an admixture of memoir, biography, travelogue, history and philosophical musings. I'd not read anything by Sara Wheeler and look forward to her other books.
But I'm glad this was my first. The idea of a "second act" in midlife is intriguing. And the cost of that second act - and its gains - for all six nineteenth century women Wheeler follows are solid. I like the semi-balance of loss and reward over years and the joy-amid-trial
Marianne Delwood
Jul 07, 2014 rated it really liked it
"O My America!" is a good read, but not an easy book to glide through. Nevertheless, it is well worth the effort for several reasons: an interesting view of American history from the viewpoint of English women visiting/living in the developing United States in the 19th century--somewhat akin to the BBC coming over to the US and reporting on various news stories, as they often do. The result is often learning some facets of our history that you may not have much acquaintance with, such as Louisa ...more
Sam Drew
Apr 19, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, travel, biography
An amazing mix of biography, social anthropology, history, and travelogue, 'O My America!: Second Acts in a New World' follows the lives of six women who visited America in the early part of the nineteenth century. All of the women were transformed by their travel experience (Sara Wheeler is well qualified for a sympathetic and objective description of this), and all of them transformed America in some way or another. All six of them were authors to a greater or lesser extent, and over the ...more
Readable and deeply entertaining, with a plethora of historical detail thrown in. Indeed, that's sometimes the problem; Wheeler is frequently distracted by tangential musings. What she promises is the story of these six incredible women, and I wanted more of that and less devotion to William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and the pioneering photographer Eadweard (yes really) Muybridge, interesting though they all are. Great fun, and well-written, but I never felt as though I got inside the heads ...more
Sarah Harkness
Dec 08, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: biographical
So this was good in parts, I think she writes well and it was an interesting concept, but I agree with the reviewer who thought it was poorly edited....some of the stories seemed patchy, disjointed. And I was particularly irritated in a surprisingly pedantic way by her throw away remark about Lily Bart, from The Custom of the Country, one of my favourite Edith Wharton novels. Wheeler writes that Wharton had given Lily a beard, in some strange transgender motif. Of course the beautiful heroine ...more
Gemma Alexander
Feb 04, 2015 rated it really liked it
Sara Wheeler is an English nonfiction travel writer. Wheeler’s blend of extensive historical research with personal experience reminded me of Bill Bryson, although her research seems to go deep where his is broad. When she was facing the age of female invisibility (50, for the males who may be reading) she stumbled upon the story of Fanny Trollope who boldly adventured in the American West with her three youngest children when Cincinnati was a frontier town. Her trip was a disaster, but resulted ...more
A delightful, beautifully written composite of travel, memoir, social history and biography. While painting rich, sympathetic portraits of six very different women – whom she fondly terms “my girls” – Wheeler also documents the rapid changes of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Her six subjects are less role models than spirit guides, encouraging her – and readers – that personal reinvention is always possible, even as middle age approaches. (See my full review at For Books' Sake.)
Dec 03, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2016-read
Sara Wheeler has shifted conventional genre boundaries with this book. Densely written, she has an incredible command of US history and the way people and events intersect and interact. I enjoyed meeting her six "girls" and seeing them in the context of larger history. The epilogue reaffirmed for me how deep my native California roots run; the girl can leave CA but CA never ever leaves the girl. I love the way she's written about a landscape that runs in my blood. Sara Wheeler has inspired my ...more
Gerry Dee
Mar 06, 2014 rated it liked it
Recommended to Gerry by: Lyn Relph
- Read a review by Lyn Ralph and was intrigued. Love women who reinvent selves in middle years. Would love even more passionate passionately women who reinvented selves at 70. Book idea? Note: Mother Jones and Helen Hunt Jackson both reinvented themselves in mid-year and both told people they were older than their actual age. Why???

3/27/2014 - choppy writing. Loved the premise but not the execution. Lots of interesting historical info about women's lives during mid nineteenth century.
Feb 28, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This book is an interesting but lengthy read about six women who traveled to America and what they discovered about themselves in their adventure. I especially enjoyed the section dedicated to Fanny Kemble who married a Southern gentleman and a Plantation owner and how she viewed the slaves and how she felt about abolition . This book is an enlightening look at earlier women who traveled and who were adventurous and spurs the reader on to a craving to get out and explore.
This book is not a fast
Dec 30, 2014 rated it it was ok
Does Wheeler's interest in "second acts" stem from turning 50 or from having squandered the opportunities that fell her way post Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica? This book stings because it is a waste of time
May 25, 2016 rated it liked it
The short biographies of six British women who travel separately to America (during Victorian or civil war era) include their impressions of the U.S., American culture, slavery, etc. The author retraces their journeys, and I found her own experiences and impressions equally interesting.
I wass looking forward to this book but found it impossible to read. Te author threw her own travels in there willy billy. I got bored before reading 75 pages and will return it to the library tomorrow
Mar 02, 2014 rated it it was ok
Not enough about the women. Too much stuff mentioned in passing with no depth.
Aug 29, 2014 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Very entertaining. The women have very different reasons for travelling here and very different experiences. The author also travels to many of the same places.
Jan 09, 2017 rated it really liked it
Good read but I wasn't crazy about the author inserting her personal narrative. Her connections weren't that vital to the impact of the women's stories.
Oct 28, 2013 marked it as to-read
First sentence: Fanny Trollope was broke when she turned fifty, and on intimate terms with pig manure.
Nov 02, 2013 marked it as to-read
Jan 16, 2014 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this book. It was like reading about a group of ladies that you would have loved to have been with.
Wendy Lavery
Mar 15, 2014 rated it really liked it
This is an interesting and even inspiring book. Well written and enjoyable.
Mar 29, 2017 rated it liked it
Normally this is the kind of book I enjoy - the type that combines history, biography, travel. This one, about six 19th century English women who travel to America in their middle age, left me a bit cold. The Indian-hunting, wild life-eliminating, slave-owning, carpetbagging frontier America is not particularly appealing - even if Wheeler is at pains to describe the physical beauty of the place. And the 6 British women through whose eyes we see this fledgling nation, while very fascinating, are ...more
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Sara Wheeler was brought up in Bristol and studied Classics and Modern Languages at Brasenose College, University of Oxford. After writing about her travels on the Greek island of Euboea and in Chile, she was accepted by the US National Science Foundation as their first female writer-in-residence at the South Pole, and spent seven months in Antarctica.

In her resultant book Terra Incognita: Travels