Backwards To Oregon by Jae is a historical novel about the trail to Oregon, the hardships it brings, and Luke and Nora Hamilton. Brooklyn and I (Tara) chose it as the first book in our new book club and we hope you all love Backwards to Oregon as much as we do.
Nora has been a prostitute for three years. By living as “Fleur,” the highest paid girl working for Tess, she can afford to keep her daughter safe, but not for long. Tess asks her one night to take care of Luke and keep an open mind, but she doesn’t learn what Tess means because Luke won’t let her touch him. He seems kind enough, however, so she accepts his offer of marriage and a new life in Oregon a couple of days later.
Luke is a “man” with a secret. He is actually woman and no one can ever know. Having seen how good Nora is with her daughter, Luke sees an opportunity: if she marries Nora, she can give her and Amy a chance at a life away from the brothel while giving herself an even better chance of passing as a man on the wagon train.
Brooklyn: Luke Hamilton has lived as a man since she was 12. Because of her secret, she has had to live a solitary life. She starts out slightly awkward toward Nora, but as the story unfolds I found Luke to actually be a shy, tender hearted, loveable cutie.
Tara: I loved Luke so much. So much of her behaviour was motivated by ensuring she never drew attention to herself, but I loved that her sense of honour meant she also tried to always do the right thing. She was kind and generous with Amy, willing to step in as a “father,” even if she didn’t know for how long. She also had a beautiful internal journey where she went from believing no one could ever love her for herself to seeing that she deserves happiness like anyone else.
I also think Jae did something interesting with Luke and her gender presentation. Luke learned how to pass as a man for survival reasons, but at the point at which we meet her, she also mostly thinks of herself as a man. It made me wonder how she would be presented if we were to meet her character in a contemporary novel. Would Luke be a butch woman? Trans man? Non-binary or genderqueer? It came across as more than simply crossdressing and I want to know more.
Brooklyn: Nora Macauley Hamilton turned out to be my favorite character. She was disowned by her family for getting pregnant and took up a life of prostitution. She has a daughter named Amy who is three when she takes Luke up on her offer to travel west. On this journey, with encouragement from Luke, Nora really grows into her own. She is extremely tough and never gives up, learns how to cook and make a fire. Eventually she becomes more self-confident and stops believing she must bend to a man’s needs.
Tara: I think Luke is actually my favourite character, but I loved Nora too. It was amazing to see her grow to love and accept herself, especially as she learns new skills, including how to stand up for herself.
There are quite a few side characters, but it’s not difficult to keep track of them. I liked the complicated friendships that Luke has with Tess and Nora has with Bernice. There are a couple of men who are awful, but I’m happy to report that they get exactly the ending they deserve.
The Writing Style
Tara: Backwards to Oregon is more than 500 pages long, but the story is written and paced so well that it moves quickly and was hard to put down. There’s a lot of detail about their life on the trail, but it’s always included in a way that is interesting so it never feels like an info dump. The relationship between Luke and Nora is carefully built as they move from strangers to friends to, eventually, true partners. Because they don’t become romantically involved until near the end of the book, I appreciated the bonus short story in addition to the epilogue. That left me satisfied with Luke and Nora’s stability as a family unit.
Brooklyn: Because of the length of the book, I really got to know the characters as well as see them grow, which was very fulfilling. I also couldn’t help but think it was cute as characters stuttered or stumbled over their own words when in shock.
Tara: There’s so much to love about Backwards to Oregon. The characters are beautifully written, the story is interesting and moves at a good clip, and the relationship is just so, so good.
Brooklyn: I know that Amy is three years old and would talk like a baby, but baby talk (for me) is hard to stomach. Otherwise! Out of the 540 pages I can’t think of any, can you Tara?
Tara: I don’t have any cons, but I do have a content warning. It’s never explicit, but there is some sexual violence and domestic violence. It’s handled sensitively, but I know that’s a no-go for some readers.
Brooklyn: Woah what a journey! I loved every page of this book and I’m extremely excited to know there is a second about another character I was hoping to read about.
Tara: I’m with Brooklyn. I enjoyed this book from the first page to the last. I’ll be reading it again and I can’t wait to read the sequel.
Excerpt from Backwards To Oregon by Jae
Luke bent down to look into her face. “Are you in pain?”
“I’m …” Nora hesitated. After three years as a prostitute, she had learned to hide her emotions, but she didn’t want to lie to the man who was doing his best to take care of her daughter. “I’m afraid.”
“Afraid?” Luke repeated as if that emotion was completely foreign to him. His eyes widened, and he moved back from her. “I would never harm you in any—”
“Oh, no, that’s not what I meant.” Nora closed her eyes for a second. For such a confident man, he was surprisingly unsure of himself when it came to human interactions. “I’m not afraid of you. It’s just … it suddenly occurred to me how dangerous this whole journey will be.”
Luke studied her through narrowed eyes. “You’re afraid to die.”
It was hard to hold his gaze. “I’m not afraid for myself, just for Amy. She would be all alone if something happened to me,”s he whispered as if saying it out loud would somehow make it happen.
Luke rubbed his nose, playing with the little bump. “She would have me,” he said in an equally low voice.
Get Backwards To Oregon on Amazon
Bits and Bobs
- ISBN number: 9783955330262
- Publisher: YLVA Publishing
Note: We received a free review copy of Backwards To Oregon by Jae for review. No money was exchanged for this review. We will always review books as honestly as possible and on occasion We refuse to review books.
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