Book review: 'Across the Sea, Across the Plains' tells of handcart pioneers in depth

By Landon Walters

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, Sept. 23 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

"ACROSS THE SEA, ACROSS THE PLAINS: The Epic Account of the Willie & Martin Handcart Companies From Europe to Zion," by Shelli Simmons, Cedar Fort, $19.99, 313 pages (nf)

For many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the stories of the pioneers who settled Salt Lake City and the surrounding areas 165 years ago are part of the fabric of the church’s history. These stories are regularly repeated, especially during the summer months when Pioneer Day is celebrated in the state.

Of the most documented groups of pioneers that followed President Brigham Young into the valley after July 1847, the Willie and Martin handcart companies — which endured struggles and trials after embarking on their journey late in the year — are among the most well-known.

In her new book “Across the Sea, Across the Plains: The Epic Account of the Willie & Martin Handcart Companies from Europe to Zion,” author Shelli Simmons examines the stories of these specific members of the early LDS Church that eventually made up the members of the fateful handcart companies.

Simmons — who was born in Salt Lake City — completed extensive research, especially from journals written by the participants themselves. These documents led her to quite a bit of background information on individuals that isn’t as well-known to the audience.

Beginning her account much earlier than 1856, when the actual handcart companies departed for Salt Lake City, the author provides many details of how the future pioneers came to find the church and be baptized by Mormon missionaries. Simmons also describes in the book the trials and persecutions that the new members faced after joining the fledgling church, before they even left their homes and families to immigrate to America.

Following the entire journey as it actually happened, the author continues to provide details about specific members of the ill-fated handcart companies as they journey “from Europe to Zion.” Simmons' research allowed her to add unknown details to the better known stories in a comprehensive account. The blending of “eyewitness accounts, original documents and personal testimonies together into one continuous timeline” is remarkable and makes the book easy to read.

This book is an interesting read for any who might be interested in learning more about the history of LDS pioneers and the faith that they brought with them from Europe as they endured all manner of trials and tragedies on the long journey to join the Saints in Utah.

Landon Walters is a history and political science major at Salt Lake Community College. He is an avid sports fan and loves writing. Email: mavericksoccer_22@hotmail.com

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