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368 pages, Hardcover
First published August 24, 2021
It is amazing, and really quite inspiring, how many important issues Rosalyn Eves has managed to fit into her new book, Beyond the Mapped Stars, while telling an engaging story with vibrant characters. The book deals smartly with some of the most fraught subjects in Mormon history--polygamy, racism, and women's equality--while also packing in thoughtful discussions and depictions of faith and science, cross-cultural friendship, family relationships, and the soft tyranny of inflexible expectations. And, most important of all, there is a train robbery, which is as close as a land-locked novel can come to the narrative summum bonum of pirates.
And an eclipse. The organizing event of the novel is the solar eclipse that occurred on July 29, 1878 and brought much of the scientific and literary establishment of the United States out to Colorado to experience it. Our heroine, Elizabeth Bertelsen, is the eighteen-year-old daughter of a polygamous Mormon family who dreams of becoming an astronomer. When Elizabeth gets a chance to travel from her rural Utah home to Wyoming around the time of the eclipse, she takes it, harboring the hope that she might possibly find a way to see the eclipse.
(Slight spoiler alert: She does).
In her travels, she meets and becomes friends with a young black woman named Alice Stevens, and her brother, will--both children of wealthy mixed-race parents. Alice dreams of becoming an artist. The dynamic here is powerful. Both of the young women--Elizabeth the Mormon and Alice the African-American--represent unpopular and persecuted minorities whose options would have been strikingly limited in 1878. The first thing they must do is make room for each other in their visions of the world, and then they have to convince the world to make room for them too. To do this, they both have to go off script--they have to do things that make them extremely uncomfortable and open to rejection. They have to go, well, "beyond the mapped stars."
(Second slight spoiler alert: they do).
Beyond the Mapped Stars is thoughtful and entertaining, and also a lot of fun. The cast is strewn with both famous and less famous historical characters: Thomas Edison, Jane Manning James, Maria Mitchell, Hellen Hunt Jackson, and the Wild-West showman "Texas Jack" (John Omohundro)--just to name a few. A wonderful and engaging book for young women and other humans.
Some may argue that this book is not accurate because Elizabeth and her friends adopt more progressive attitudes in the West toward race than were likely for the era. To this I would say, first, attitudes in the West toward race were as varied as the individuals living there. Second, this is a work of fiction, not a historical study, and some liberties are allowed for the sake of the story. Historical fiction is always a balancing act between the mores of the past and present values.