From the diary of Sister Dinah Johannsen Olsen, July 24, 1847:
This is the place? Seriously: THIS is the place?! Heavens preserve us, what a terrible, forsaken wasteland. Are we being punished? What’s the deal here?
No, wait, I see a lake! An enormous lake of water that looks cool and refreshing …! Oh. I’ve just been informed it’s a lake of saltwater. Well, hooray.
Must look for the positives. Shh, Jebby, Mama’s writing in her journal! Positives … well, we’re here, anyway. We can stop walking, and maybe my right foot will grow back. (I am no scientist; is this even possible?)
Eliza, be careful! Your ankle is showing under your skirts! Do you want the whole company seeing your business?
Where was I? Yes, positives. It will be good to build a home here in this nightmarish, barren purgatory, where surely even the daringest of persecutors will not bother to pursue us. I would chase my enemies a long way, but I would stop when I got to hell’s outer courtyard.
Little Joseph, the ox is biting you because he doesn’t like you poking him!
Wait, why would I actually write down the things I yelled at my children while I was trying to write? I must be going mad.
Yes, I am glad the journey is over. It was arduous and awful, with hardships at every turn. And you know what was the worst part of it? All the fiddle music. My goodness, couldn’t someone have brought along an accordion, or even a bagpipe? It’s non-stop fiddle music, ever since we left Nauvoo! That screechy, whiny instrument — it operates on the same principle as scraping your fingernails on a blackboard, you know — was surely designed by Satan himself. And every night, some well-meaning brother drags the thing out and plays to his heart’s content, while the rest of us are supposed to suddenly forget our troubles and dance the night away. Because after 12 hours of walking and trudging and digging and burying, there’s nothing like a vigorous two-step to help you relax.
The entire time, I wished Sister Emma Smith were here. Surely she would have had the gumption to remove the offending instrument from the brother’s hands and place it where the sun, as the lower classes say, does not shine. And that would have sent the message to the rest of the company: DON’T PLAY THE FIDDLE. Alas, I lack the fortitude necessary to behave so boldly. Instead, I suffer in silence, and occasionally in a less-silent manner, such as screaming.
But I will persevere. The journey is essentially over now, as we have arrived at our destination. Leapt from the frying pan and fallen into the fire, as it were. I’m told we shall make the desert bloom like a rose, and I think I have faith that is possible. But we sure have our work cut out for us. Getting this place suitable even for skunks and vultures to live in, let alone for any outsiders to join us, will be an Olympian task. And can I sit down first? Because seriously, not even joking, I’m so tired I could throw up.
I used to be a patriotic American, until the government proved worthless when it came to protecting our rights. Now we have had to flee westward, and even send our husbands to march in the war against Mexico! (Funny thing about polygamy: When a man leaves, he abandons six wives, instead of just one. It’s so much more efficient this way.) One thing’s for sure: We won’t be flying American flags on any 24th of July as long as any of us are alive!
I grumble too much. I ought to be more content. But it’s all so hard! One hesitates to ask for a sign, especially when one realizes that historically, most of the signs God has given have involved something falling from the sky or catching on fire. But still: How am I to know this horrible journey has been worthwhile? All the hunger, all the pain, all the fiddling — why?
I’ve just been told some of us are being asked to head south, to start a settlement called “Provo.”
Great. More walking.
But maybe that’s my sign. Maybe Provo will be my happy valley.
This appeared on Pioneer Day, a legal holiday in Utah commemorating the Mormon pioneers' arrival in the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847.
I liked the idea of showing what I figure would be an ordinary pioneer woman: hardy and brave, but unsure what it was all about, and not entirely convinced this was such a great idea. Sometimes she's even bitter, especially in her private writings. Those aren't the faith-promoting stories we hear about, but I bet they were at least as numerous as the ones about people who never complained and who skipped and whistled all the way to Zion.
Does this column have a happy ending, or a sad one? Will Dinah really find happiness, or is she the sort of faithless soul who will never be happy because life will always be hard? Discuss.
I named her Dinah after the long-suffering protagonist in the Orson Scott Card novel "Saints," which I read not long before writing this.
The thing about the fiddle started as a conversation with Luscious Malone, who said she could have handled everything about the pioneer trek except all the harmonica playing that must have gone on. She hates harmonicas. (We made a mental note of how to aggravate Luscious, which we enjoy doing.) Originally, that's how I wrote this, with Dinah being annoyed by harmonicas. But something didn't sound right. I did some checking, and sure enough: Harmonicas weren't introduced in North America until the 1860s. Fiddles were prevalent, though -- all the pioneer stories talk about fiddling around the campfire at night -- so I went with that.
Also note the crack about how Pioneer Day is actually a pretty unpatriotic holiday, yet Utahns insist on flying flags on July 24. I honestly believe this is because the holiday is so close to Independence Day, and that if the pioneers had arrived in November, there would be turkey dinners and football games on Pioneer Day and no flag-waving or fireworks.
When I do live shows, sometimes I'll read this column as though it were a scene from a one-woman play about a pioneer lady. I like performing it. It gives me room for some dramatic range.