Book Review: Backwards to Oregon, by Jae

Content warning for domestic violence & abuse

Before we start, I feel we should disclaim something very important : You should never, ever bind your breasts (which is wrap them in order to hide them) with bandages. For the purpose of the story, Luke has been binding her chest since twelve, but this is a story, and improper binding (which is anything without a binder, aka a piece of clothing specifically designed for binding) can and will cause problems such as: stunted organ growth, spine damage or warped ribs (concave ribs instead of barrel-like). Never ever bind your chest with an ace wrap. Especially if you're not fully grown yet. Buy a decent binder.

Okay, back to the story!

Our two cinnamon rolls of the day are Nora Macauley and Luke Hamilton. Luke Hamilton is a soldier who hides a terrible secret: he was actually born Lucinda, a woman. When he decides to leave the army for good and find a new life in Oregon, he realizes that a woman at his arm would kill any doubt about his gender. When Tess, a madam of a brothel,  his best friend and only confident, presents him with Nora, one of her workers who longs to leave this life for good, he jumps at the chance and asks her to marry him.

But Nora is disillusioned about love. When a playing man left her with child, she was kicked from home by her wealthy family and knows that she'll never find happiness and love as an unwed woman with a daughter. The marriage to Luke would only be a business transaction, and soon she finds herself on a six month trip to Oregon, with dangers ahead which forces her to learn some unexpected truths about herself.

I admit it, the Oregon series were the last books from Jae I had yet to read. I was scared of Luke, of how he'd be written. But I was blown away, to say the least. Our understanding of gender has evolved with time, and while we now know that people we could qualify as trans or genderqueer have existed since forever all around the world, words people have used have changed with time. Luke never really puts words on what he is, and while I wouldn't assign him an identity so pretentiously, his feelings often match closely that of a person who would define themselves genderqueer today. While the narration uses she/her pronouns for him throughout the book, Backwards to Oregon and its sequel show numerous times that he's comfortable with both, and that his identity as Luke Hamilton is the one which feels more comfortable to him. Hence my personal choice to use he/him/cinnamon roll pronouns.

But Nora isn't uninteresting either, and I loved her as a desperate woman who's had a tough life, but who won't surrender her chance at happiness. She doesn't trust Luke, and it's hard to judge her for that since Luke wasn't exactly forthcoming about his motivations, and he never truly thought about what Nora and her daughter Amy would become in Oregon after bringing them there. With work, time and hardships, both protagonists will learn to trust and care for each other. Luke in particular, who's lived most of his life on his own, learns to let people close again, especially through Amy, Nora's wonderful daughter.

This is historical fiction, so the same reserves I had in Shaken to the Core remain: this is 1851 society, and some of the most infuriating gender norms that stubbornly survive today were fully alive back then. And while our beloved characters are thankfully as progressive as they get, this is not a teeth-gritting-free read, something I found myself caring less about the more I read because frankly, after a while I was too entranced to care. Still, it remains a world where love between women is "unnatural," sex workers "sell their body," and where a woman is "property".

Anyone who's watched spaghetti westerns knows how popular stories of the Far West are in Europe, and in France, I grew up with comics like Lucky Luke or Blueberry. The research work poured into bringing back the time of the Oregon Trail is obvious and never did I feel anywhere else but on the path with Luke and Nora. The alternating viewpoints give us perspectives into the mind of the colonizers of the time: part desperation, part hope for a better future. I checked some details myself to know more about them, particularly regarding Native Americans our protagonists meet, and found them to be accurate.

As always, Jae provides wonderful writing, tight, well paced and beautifully written. I never really tire of reading her work. She writes characters so well they never feel out of place or shallow, and this book's secondary cast is just as amazing as the leads. An excellent book that ties adventure, historical fiction and romance just right.

Backwards to Oregon is published by Ylva Publishing and can be ordered on the author's website.

Rachel Vigo is a would-be critical geographer from Paris (the one in France, not the one in Texas). She is an avid devourer of books and plays video-games far too much.